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Rock Doc: Light overcoming the darkness

By
March 16, 2011 |

E. Kirsten Peters mug

Peters

There’s good news all around us. On March 20 we’ll be hitting the first day of spring, known to us geeks as the spring equinox. That’s the point when those of us living on the northern half of the Earth finally start to see daylight overwhelm the darkness of winter.

We’ve survived the shadow that started to fall across our existence last September, when we went through the autumn equinox and nights became longer than days.

The spring equinox falls on slightly different days during different years, ranging from March 19 to March 21. That’s the case for a couple of reasons. Our human calendar doesn’t perfectly match with Mother Nature. And the Earth’s trip around the sun isn’t exactly the same each year, in part because we actually get pulled and pushed around a tiny bit by other planets.

The “reason for the seasons” lies in the fact that the north pole of the Earth is not at 90 degrees to the plane in which our planet moves around the sun each year. In the summer, the tilt of the North Pole is toward the sun. Six months later, we’ve moved half way around our orbit, making the tilt of the North Pole away from the sun.

Most citizens don’t understand that, so let’s make it more clear.

Imagine you take a blue ball and stick a toothpick in it. The ball represents the Earth (it’s blue because so much of our planet is covered by the seas). The toothpick you stuck in the blue ball represents the North Pole. Set the blue ball near the edge of a table with the toothpick nearly upright but pointed a bit at the center of the table.

Now put an orange in the middle of the table to represent the golden sun. What you have is a model for summertime. Our part of the Earth (the northern half) is tilted toward the sun. Life is good. We get more daylight than darkness each 24 hours.

If you keep the blue ball and the toothpick in the same orientation, but move the ball around the orange to the far side of the table, you have a model for winter. The northern half of Earth is pointed away from the sun. Life is dark and dreary.

One of my favorite lines of poetry was inspired by the condition shown on the tabletop in this second condition. The verse is: “The sun that brief December day/ rose cheerless over hills of gray.” At least when I recite that line, I can feel the icy darkness of winter, when the northern hemisphere of Earth is pointed away from the sun.

But for the next half year from where we are in March, sunlight will be blessing us northern peoples. And the farther north on the Earth you go, the more daylight you get. That means folks in Fairbanks get more light than us in the Lower 48. That sounds grand, at least if you like sunlight as much as I do. But it’s also true that the sun is low in the sky in Fairbanks. And winter up there is so long and dark I’m not sure any poet has captured its effects on people.

I once was in Fairbanks in June. My big brother was kind enough to include me on an almost endless camping trip from New Jersey, across Canada and then to Alaska. One aspect of sleeping in a tent in the Arctic in June is that it’s tough to get enough rest. There’s so little darkness, you can lie awake with light in your eyes for hours and hours (and, of course, it adds to your pleasure that you’re on the cold, hard ground.)

Last thought: if you go outside as the sun sets on March 20, it will show you where due west lies. You can use the shadows from the dying light to see if one wall of your home is lined up due east-west (and therefore the adjacent side is due north-south). That’s likely to be true. We tend to line up our buildings and streets with the poles. How’s that for abstract astronomy at work right around you?

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resources Sciences at Washington State University.

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