08 December 2005

Cold Hard Solstice

23.5 degrees. That’s how much our home tilts on its axis along the celestial equator, an imaginary plane that causes constellations like Orion and Aquila to be seen around the world.

23.5 degrees. That’s the approximate figure responsible for the loss and gain of light, for the change of the seasons. The closer to the poles you live, the more you feel the Earth’s moods. Think of all those living in Barrow, Alaska, or Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Think of how those Eskimos and Slope workers will see less than four hours of sun this month. Think of how all those penguins will bask in endless day.

Many of you reading this may wonder why I would choose to start my Solstice Series with cold hard facts. In my experience, most people are clueless about the Solstice; in fact, these same people have never even heard of such a phenomenon. Now, maybe I’m more sensitive to the annual flux in solar presence, having grown up in Anchorage, Alaska, but how can anyone living more than 20 degrees from the equator not notice the way daylight wanes during the winter months?

But I digress, back to the facts. Unlike the common misconception that the Earth tilts, it doesn’t; it tilts. The Earth rotates on its own axis, or pole, and at the same time, revolves, or travels, around the Sun. As a result, the South and North Poles take turns pointing at the Sun. During Winter Solstice, the Northern Hemisphere points away from the Sun, hence the lack of sunlight.

If this is difficult to visualize, grab an orange and stab a skewer right through its core. Next, hold the skewered orange next to a bright light, making sure to hold the skewer at each end at approximately 23.5 degrees to the light. Now, use the skewers to spin the orange while retaining the 23.5 degree angle. Observe how the top of the orange is often in shadow, while the bottom is often lit.

This is what happens during the Winter Solstice, from a Northern Hemisphere perspective.

Don’t confuse the lack of light with the distance from the sun, however. During Winter Solstice, we are actually the closest to the Sun, not the farthest. Can you imagine what warm winters we’d have if the Earth didn’t insist on walking Her path bass ackwards?

A curious thing happens right before and after the Solstices. The Sun seems to neither gain nor lose light, seeming to have stuck in a path. This is the source of the word “solstice.” The word derives from two Latin parts of speech: “sol” for sun, and “-stitium” for a stoppage.

Due to the uneven course of our planet (or is it the Gregorian calendar system we choose to follow?), the solstice and equinoxes arrive on different days and times every year. Click here for a complete listing dating to 2020. This year, on December 21, 2005, at 10:35 PST, if you feel for it really close, you just may be able to feel our Mother tilting back towards the Sun, even though She’s not really changing her tilt at all. So closes the cold hard facts.

Coming soon: Culture and the Solstice.

References:

Fact Monster, Winter Solstice. http://www.factmonster.com/spot/wintersolstice1.html (accessed December 7, 2005).

Earth’s Seasons – Equinoxes and Solstices, U.S. Naval Observatory. http://www.crh.noaa.gov/ind/seasons.txt (accessed December 7, 2005).

“Winter Solstice,” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_solstice (accessed December 7, 2005).

2 comments:

Robert Casserly said...

I can't tell you how many times I've tried to explain to people how we were, in fact, closer to the sun in the winter than in the summer, only to be chided like the village idiot. No one wants to hear it.

BTW, know of any local, public, solstice celebrations?

RC

Rell said...

by birthday is during the Summer Solstice :-)

June 21st...