22 September 2010

Autumnal Equinox and the rate of change of the length of the day

Today is the Autumnal Equinox, one of two Equinoxes of the year. These are days that mark the transition from one season to the next, but also are days that have very special significance as the Earth orbits the Sun. Because of the tilt of the Earth's rotational axis, the Northern and Southern Hemispheres receive radically different amounts of sunlight from June through December, as the seasons progress from Summer to Fall to Winter (northern hemisphere). This is well understood and we learn from basic science courses that the in-between points while transitioning from Summer to Winter, for example, are the days that have equal periods of the Sun above the horizon and below the horizon -- equal duration of night and day -- hence Equinox. Today, everywhere on the planet, the Sun spent exactly 12 hours above the horizon and 12 below, and the Sun rose due East and set due West. From now through March, the Sun will be above the horizon more than 12 hours a day in the Southern Hemisphere, and less than 12 hours a day in the Northern Hemisphere.

I love the symmetry and simplicity of the Sun's motion on this day. It marks a transition as the days are getting shorter in the Northern Hemisphere. Everyone can feel the shortening of the days and sense, innately, that the changes in daylight and darkness are sudden and surprising. This is another fascinating change happening at the Equinox, more subtle but no less fascinating to me. When people sense the changes to the onset of darkness in the evening or the late sunrise in the morning, they are noticing that the length of the day is changing quite quickly and they feel that the times of day that might have been bright and sunny only a few weeks ago are now getting dark. At the time of the Equinox, the length of the day is changing most rapidly. For example, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the longest day in summer is nearly 15 hours long and in winter the shortest day is approximately 9 1/2 hours. As the seasons change, the time of sunset and sunrise changes slowly, starting at the solstice in June - maybe only 1/2 to 1 minute per day. But then the changing becomes more rapid approaching the Equinox. At the time of the Equinox this week, the length of a day is changing 3 minutes per day -- that is, about 20 minutes in one week! So if you feel like the length of the days is changing very fast, you are absolutely correct.

The change is even more dramatic the farther north or south you are. For example, in Alaska, the length of the day is changing right now about 5-6 minutes per day, or about 40 minutes in one week! Imagine how that would feel, and it is a natural thing that happens every Spring and Fall. I think it is amazing how much the seasons impact the different geographies of the world, and a little understanding of the natural foundation for these effects is a nice thing to have.


Sidewalk Universe said...

Nice write up Paul!!!!!!!!!

Hunter Cutting said...

I've heard this before, great stuff.

But why does this happen?