Metro

The vernal equinox, explained

In the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox heralding the beginning of spring occurred Monday. Although there’s still snow on the ground and cold weather in the forecast, one can’t deny the new season has arrived.

Astronomical spring begins when the sun reaches a certain height over the equator each year. While nearly everyone knows spring arrives around March 20, what’s actually occurring in terms of the relationship between the earth and the sun still isn’t universally understood.

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On both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun is directly overhead at noon at some place along the equator of our planet. This year, the first of these two occurrences happened at 6:29 a.m Eastern Standard Time on March 20.

Basically, if you were in central Africa and looked up at noon, the sun would be directly above your head, forming a 90-degree angle with the ground. On Friday, Sept. 22, at 4:02 p.m., the same thing will occur at a different spot along the equator to begin the fall season.

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Just before sunrise, the sun is even with the horizon and then rises during the day, reaching the maximum height exactly between sunrise and sunset. The highest point the sun reached around Boston Monday is about 48 degrees above the horizon. This angle will continue to increase until the first day of summer, when it’s at about 71 degrees.

From then on it falls, reaching a minimum of 24 degrees as winter begins. Other places on the planet have different maximum heights. There’s always someplace where the sun is directly overhead, but it only occurs exactly at the equator on the equinox.

On the first day of spring, the sun will reach different maximum heights across the planet.

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On the first day of spring, the sun will reach different maximum heights across the planet.

The sun is up all day at the South Pole during our fall and winter, but down all day during our spring and summer.

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The sun is up all day at the South Pole during our fall and winter, but down all day during our spring and summer.

The word “equinox” is derived from the Latin words meaning “equal night.” While nearly all spots on Earth have about 12 hours of darkness and light as spring begins, it’s not exact. Depending on where you live on the planet, the day on which you have equal day and night shifts on the calendar.

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Multiple factors cause this, including the shape of the planet and the way the sun’s light is bent as it passes through the atmosphere.

In a world in which many of us are overextended and stressed, the fact that the planet is spinning around a tilted axis at over 1,000 miles per hour can be lost. With the arrival of spring, take a moment to ponder the changes occurring, and how the increase in light and strength of the sun will soon be melting the snow, warming the earth, and bringing about that magical and dramatic metamorphosis to our landscape known as spring.

Follow Dave Epstein on Twitter: @growingwisdom
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