Seeking the Summer Solstice

Can you feel the heat? If you find yourself north of the equator, astronomical summer kicks off today with the arrival of the summer solstice. In the southern hemisphere, the reverse is true, as today’s solstice marks the start of winter.

Thank our wacky seasons, and the 23.4 degree tilt of the Earth’s axis for the variation in insolation. Today, all along the Tropic of Cancer at latitude 23.4 degrees north, folks will experience what’s known as Lahiana Noon, as the Sun passes through the zenith directly overhead. Eratosthenes first noted this phenomena in 3rd century BC from an account in the town of Syene (modern day Aswan), 925 kilometers to the south of Alexandria, Egypt. The account mentioned how, at noon on the day of the solstice, the Sun shined straight down a local well, and cast no shadows. He went on to correctly deduce that the differing shadow angles between the two locales is due to the curvature of the Earth, and went on to calculate the curvature of the planet for good measure. Not a bad bit of reasoning, for an experiment that you can do today.

Eratosthenes' classic experiment. Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.
Eratosthenes’ classic experiment. Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.

And although we call it the Tropic of Cancer, and the astrological sign of the Crab begins today as the Sun passes 90 degrees longitude along the ecliptic plane as seen from Earth, the Sun now actually sits in the astronomical constellation of Taurus on the June northward solstice. Thank precession; live out a normal 72 year human life span, and the solstice will move one degree along the ecliptic—stick around about 26,000 years, and it will complete one circuit of the zodiac. That’s something that your astrologer won’t tell you.

The tilt of the Earth's axis during the June northward solstice. Image credit: NASA.
The tilt of the Earth’s axis during the June northward solstice. Image credit: NASA.

The solstice in the early 21st century actually falls on June 20th, thanks to the ‘reset’ the Gregorian calendar received in 2000 from the addition of a century year leap day. The actual moment the Sun reaches its northernmost declination today and slowly reverses its apparent motion is 22:34 Universal Time (UT).  In 2016, the Moon reaches Full just 11 hours to the solstice. The last time a Full Moon fell within 24 hours of a solstice was December 2010, and we had a total lunar eclipse to boot. Such a coincidence won’t occur again until December 2018. You get a good study in celestial mechanics 101 tonight, as the Full Moon rises opposite to the setting Sun. The Moon occupies the southern region of the sky where the Sun will reside this December during the other solstice, when the Full Moon will then ride high in the night sky, and gets ever higher as we head towards a Major Lunar Standstill in 2025.

Image credit: Dave Dickinson
The back alley of our Morocco Air BnB mimics Eratosthenes’ well. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

Of course, this motion of the Sun through the year is all an illusion from our terrestrial biased viewpoint. We’re actually racing around the Sun to the tune of 30 kilometers per second. You wouldn’t know it as summer heats up in the northern hemisphere, but we’re headed towards aphelion or the farthest point from the Sun for the Earth on July 4th at 152 million kilometers or 1.017 astronomical units (AU) distant. And the latest sunset as seen from latitude 40 degrees actually occurs on June 27th at 7:33 PM (not accounting for Daylight Saving Time) go much further north (like the Canadian Maritimes or the UK) and true astronomical darkness never occurs in late June.

And speaking of the Sun, we’re wrapping up the end of the 11 year solar cycle this year… and there are hints that we may be in for another profound solar minimum similar to 2009. We’ve already had a brief spotless stretch last month, and some solar astronomers have predicted that solar cycle #25 may be absent all together. This means a subsidence in aurorae, and an uncharacteristically blank Sol.

But don’t despair and pack it in for the summer. As a consolation prize, high northern latitudes have in recent years played host to electric blue noctilucent clouds near the June solstice. Also, the International Space Station enters a second period of full illumination through the entire length of its orbit from July 26th to 28th, making for the possibility of seeing multiple passes in a single night.

A display of noctilucent clouds over Blackrod, UK. Image credit and copyright: Dave Walker.
A display of noctilucent clouds over Blackrod, UK. Image credit and copyright: Dave Walker.

And folks in the Islamic world (and travelers such as ourselves currently in Morocco) can rejoice, as the Full Moon means that we’re half way through the fasting lunar month Ramadan. This is an especially tough one, as Ramadan 2016 goes right through the summer solstice, making for only a brief six hour span to break the fast each  night and prepare for another 18 hour long stretch… and to repeat this pattern for 29 days straight. It’s a fascinating time of night markets and celebration, but for travelers, it also means odd opening hours and delays.

Searching for the solstice and other strange astronomical alignments at M'Soura, Morocco. Image credit: Dave Dickinson
Searching for the solstice and other strange astronomical alignments at M’Soura, Morocco. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

See any curious solstice shadow alignments in your neighborhood today?

Happy Lahiana Noon… from here on out, northern viewers slowly start to take back the night!

 

The longest day – Summer Solstice 21st June 2011

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June 21st, 2011 is Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year.

This is the time when the Sun is at its highest or most northerly point in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere and when we receive the most hours of daylight. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere it is the reverse, so you will be having “Winter Solstice.”

Also known as “Midsummer” the Summer Solstice gets its name from the Latin for sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). The Sun reaches its most Northerly point and momentarily stands still before starting its journey South in the sky again until it reaches its most Southerly point “Winter Solstice”, before repeating the cycle. This is basically how we get our seasons.

It’s not actually the Sun that moves North or South over the seasons although it may appear so. It’s the Earths axial tilt that causes the Sun to change position in the sky as the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year.

Why Are There Seasons
The angle of the Sun and the Earth's seasons. Image credit: NASA

Summer Solstice/ Midsummer is steeped in ancient folklore especially in Northern Europe with the most famous place directly related to it being Stonehenge, where the sun has been worshiped for thousands of years.

Stonehenge Credit: bistrochic.net

The Sun reaches its most Northerly point in the sky at 17:16 UTC momentarily and from that point forward starts to make its way South. This means the days will get shorter and shorter until Winter Solstice in December.

Last Day of Summer

Winter Solstice

Summertime is a joyous time for so many reasons. There’s the sense of vacation, that feeling of freedom we remember so fondly from our childhoods. There’s the warmth weather, the sunshine, the early mornings and cool, late evenings. Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with summer, except the unfortunate fact that sooner or later, it has to end.

But when exactly is the very last day of summer? Well, it differs from place to place, depending on your location, whether you are north or south of the equator and by how much. But in the Northern Hemisphere, the change in seasons occurred on September 22nd for the year of 2010. In the Southern Hemisphere, it took place on February 28th.

In order to understand why this date was pegged as the end of the season, we need to understand exactly how the season itself is measured. These have to do with the equinoxes and solstices, seasonal markers that occur twice a year respectively. From an astronomical point of view, the equinoxes and solstices are in the middle of the respective seasons, but a variable seasonal lag means that the meteorological start of the season, which is based on average temperature patterns, occurs several weeks later than the start of the astronomical season.

According to meteorologists, summer extends for the whole months of June, July and August in the northern hemisphere and the whole months of December, January and February in the southern hemisphere. Interestingly enough, in this hemisphere, the end of the summer season is also dependent on whether or not it is a leap year (during leap years, an extra day is added).

In North America, summer is often fixed as the period from the summer solstice (June 20 or 21, depending on the year) to the fall equinox (September 22 or 23, again depending on the year). Therefore, Sept. 22 was the last day of summer and the beginning of the 2010 autumnal equinox, which officially began at 11:09 p.m. EST., the full moon having peaked the following morning at 5:17 a.m. EST which marked it as the first day of fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

The moon closest to the September equinox is considered the “Harvest Moon.” Its name stems from when farmers would rely on the light to work in the fields as the days grew shorter. For the first time since 1991, the full moon fell on the equinox, creating a “Super Harvest Moon.” In the Southern Hemisphere, the last day of summer was February 28th since 2010 was not a leap year.

We have written many articles about Summer for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the summer solstice, and here’s an article about the Earth seasons.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer
http://www.tonic.com/article/last-day-of-summer-first-night-of-fall-super-harvest-moon/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equinox
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solstice
http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_last_day_of_summer_in_Southern_Hemisphere

Summer Solstice

Semi Major Axis

The summer solstice occurs once a year, and there is also a winter solstice each year. During both solstices, the tilt of the Earth’s axis is at its extreme either toward or away from the Sun. The tilt of the Earth does not actually change – it stays at 23.5° – however, the Earth also orbits the Sun causing different regions to be exposed to varying degrees of sunlight.

The word “solstice” has its roots in Latin from the words for “sun” and “to stand still.” This is because during the solstices, the Sun appears to stand still, and then it starts moving in the opposite direction in our sky. It begins to get lower in the sky, and the length of daylight starts getting shorter in the Northern Hemisphere.

In addition to the two solstices, there are also two equinoxes, which is where the days are of equal length at the equator.  The tilt of the Earth is also responsible for the change in seasons we experience. During the summer solstice, the Suns is directly over the Tropic of Cancer.

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year – the longest time there is daylight – in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere however with the winter solstice being the longest day of the year. The exact date of the summer solstice moves around somewhat because of the way years are set up in the Gregorian calendar. For example, it fell on June 20th in 2000. Usually, however, it is on June 21st.

In some cultures, the solstices, and the equinoxes, represent the start of the seasons while they are the midpoint in other cultures. The summer solstice is the beginning of summer in America. The summer solstice has long been a time for celebration for many different cultures. Midsummer was a holiday celebrated in various European cultures.

Traditionally, Midsummer’s Day falls on June 24th, several days after the actual solstice. The Midsummer celebration of the ancient Gauls was known as the Feast of Epona. In China, the summer solstice celebration represented yin, earth, and the feminine while its opposite – the yang – was celebrated during the winter solstice.

Germanic, Slav, and Celtic tribes in Europe used to celebrate Midsummer with huge bonfires. Jumping through the fire was supposed to grant protection to people and bring love. The bonfires were also supposed to lend their power to the Sun, which would begin to wan as winter approached.

Universe Today has articles on the shortest day of the year and the declination of the Sun that will help you learn more about the solstices and seasons.

If you are looking for more information, About.com has a number of good articles on the summer solstice and Science World has some great articles and resources.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Earth you will want to check out.