What is the significance of the Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Arctic Circle and Antarctic Circle? (Beginner)

The Tropic of Cancer is the circle marking the latitude 23.5 degrees north, where the sun is directly overhead at noon on June 21, the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere. The Tropic of Capricorn is the circle marking the latitude 23.5 degrees south where the sun is directly overhead at noon on December 21, the beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere. When the lines were named 2000 years ago, the Sun was in the constellation of Capricorn during the winter solstice and Cancer during the summer solstice (hence the names). Now due to the precession of the equinoxes the Sun is no longer in these constellations during these times, but the names remain.

The equator is the circle where the Sun is directly overhead at noon on the equinoxes.

The Arctic and Antarctic Circles are located at ±66.5 degrees latitude. Note that 66.5 + 23.5 equals 90 degrees. This means that on December 21, when the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at noon, it will not be visible from the Arctic Circle. So above the Arctic Circle, there is a period during the winter when the sun remains below the horizon. The same is true of the Antarctic Circle during Southern Hemisphere winter. On June 21st, when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer at noon, it is not visible from below the Antarctic Circle.

 

This page was last updated on June 27, 2015.

About the Author

Cathy Jordan

Cathy got her Bachelors degree from Cornell in May 2003 and her Masters of Education in May 2005. She did research studying the wind patterns on Jupiter while at Cornell. She is now an 8th grade Earth Sciences teacher in Natick, MA.

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