The winter solstice is here, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year. Sometimes celebrated as Yule in Pagan and Wiccan traditions, it resembles the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
The days will finally be getting longer. It’s a time to reflect on the year, let it go, and share the spirit of gratitude. (Check out these Yule rituals and ceremonies).
Here, we’re going to dive into the scientific side of the solstice, which is just as beautiful as the spiritual aspect.
It Happens in an Instant
Even though the solstice is given an entire day of recognition, its occurrence is a mere instant — at exactly 5:54 am EST for 2016 —and happens when the North Pole is at its farthest tilt of 23.5 degrees from the sun. This position results in the North Pole being out of the sun’s reach, resulting in total darkness.
It is at this very instance that the sun will shine directly overhead at noon at precisely 23.5 degrees south of the equator, spanning the imaginary latitude line called the Tropic of Capricorn. This runs through Australia, Chile, southern Brazil and northern South Africa.
Here, the sun appears to reside at its southernmost point in the sky, which gives the Southern Hemisphere its longest day of the year in opposition to the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest day.
After this instance, the sun will then stop moving southward and will commence its journey northward in the sky. This explains the name behind this occasion. The word “solstice” means “sun stands still” in Latin.
The more north you reside, the less sunlight you will get during the solstice, and as a result, the longer the night will be.
The below guide, created by Alaska-based climatologist Brian Brettschneider, shows those living in the United States how the solstice will affect them. Fairbanks, Alaska, for instance, only gets three hours of sunlight on the solstice.
Though the days will begin to get longer after the winter solstice, the temperatures won’t rise right away, and instead, northern midlatitudes will feel the frigidness of winter. This is in part because they only get approximately nine hours of daylight for weeks following the winter solstice. Also, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, causing for colder temperatures. And though the days get longer, the oceans, who keep temperatures on land moderate, require large amounts of energy from the sun to heat up.
The earliest people on Earth used the solstices and equinoxes to denote the beginnings of the seasons, or the center points of the seasons. In fact, they even built monuments like Stonehenge in England, or, for example, the estate of Machu Picchu in Peru , in order to follow the sun’s yearly progress.
Today, however, we are able to see the solstice as an astronomical event that is caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis, as well as its motion in orbit around the sun.
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