solistice sunset

DREW HERMAN/KDM

As the sun sets over Chiniak Bay Thursday, daylight hours start lengthening toward the summer solstice.

Wednesday, Dec. 21, at 1:44 a.m. was winter solstice. As I am writing this article, it is not Wednesday yet and technically I should be writing in the future perfect tense: Wednesday, at 1:44 am it will have been winter solstice. Sunrise on that day will have been at 9:53 am Kodiak time. I will have celebrated the sunrise with some friends around a little bonfire slurping hot drinks and welcoming the sun as it will have risen over the ocean. Of course, all this will only have come to pass if the weather will not have driven us away and stopped our celebration.

Seen from any point on the northern hemisphere that monumental moment early Wednesday morning is when the sun changes direction. Solstice is an old Latin term. “Sol” is the sun and “sistere” means to stand still. So you can think of solstice like slack water, the moment of change between the incoming tide and the outgoing tide. Except that in the case of tides the moon is a major player, while solstice is all about the sun and the tilt of the earth.

As the earth travels on its perpetual journey around the sun it is tilted a little. Imagine earth as an orange (There are good oranges this month). One side has the little green knob that looks like a star, the opposite side has the little dip where the orange once dangled on its stem off the tree.

Let’s say the stem is the North Pole and the little star is the South Pole. To simulate how earth is oriented in space you have to turn the orange clockwise, so that the stem points to about two o’clock, which will make the star point to about eight. Now, start to spin the orange around its axis. Get your brother or anyone else to stand in the middle of the room holding a basket ball to resemble the sun and start walking a circle around them all the while turning your orange but not your body. Every turn of the orange is one day, so there are exactly 365.24 orange turns in one circle around the basketball. One circle around the basketball is one year; you will have walked forward, then sideways, then backwards and sideways in the other direction until you are back were you started.

If the earth weren’t tilted on its axis, we would not have seasons on earth. If you did the activity right, you may have noticed that for the first half of your walk around the basketball the orange stem was pointing away from it and for the other half it was pointing towards it. Winter solstice is when the sun is the farthest distance from any point on the northern hemisphere or the upper half of your orange. Summer solstice is when it is closest, exactly half a circle later. 

If we took a sharpie and drew a line around the bulgiest part of the orange, we would have the equator. A line at the exact latitude where the sun can still appear perpendicular or right over head would be called the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere. The equivalent on the southern half is called the Tropic of Capricorn.

The names were given to these lines 2,000 years ago and at that time the sun was pointing in the direction of the stellar constellation of Cancer. If we named it today, that would be different and it would be named the Tropic of Taurus, but the old Greek’s were first to name it, so we are stuck with the crabby name.

To be complete, our orange needs two more lines: the Arctic Circle and the Antarctic Circle. Above those lines, the sun is not seen for part of the year and never sets for another part of the year.

Most people think of solstice as the day when the days start getting longer again. With longer days, the sun will once again send more energy our way. In a few months it will be enough to warm the earth and make the plant life spring back into action. Most plants, including the phytoplankton in the ocean, need a certain length of daylight to start growing.

People have celebrated this turn of events for thousands of years. It is amazing how some of our present-day Christmas traditions have their origins in the oldest solstice festivals. For example, early pagans used evergreen branches to decorate their homes and lit bonfires and candles to conquer the darkness. Happy solstice everyone!

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