Winter Solstice *

At 12:47 pm today, December 21, 2009, winter begins in the Northern Hemisphere. The first day of winter is called the Winter Solstice; likewise, the first day of summer is the Summer Solstice. The word solstice is derived from Latin and means “sun standing still.” On these two days of the year, the sun’s apparent position in the sky has reached its most southern or northern extreme. Today there will only be 9 hours and 33 minutes of daylight in Richmond, but tomorrow the number of daylight hours will once again begin to increase.

The solstices and the seasons occur because the Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5° relative to its plane of revolution around the sun (see illustration). In the Northern Hemisphere winter, the northern half of the globe is tilted away from the sun; therefore, the sun is low in the sky giving us shorter days and longer nights. At this oblique angle, the sun’s energy is spread over a larger area of the Earth’s surface and thus is weaker than if it was hitting the surface more directly. Also, the sun’s rays must travel through more atmosphere before they reach the Earth’s surface, and some of the solar energy is reflected back into space. In addition, there are less daylight hours to warm the Earth. With all these factors combined, is it any wonder that we have winter weather? Contrary to what many believe, the Earth is not farther from the sun during the winter. Actually, the Earth is almost at its closest point to the sun at the time of the northern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice. This variation in the Earth’s distance from the sun is small and does not greatly affect the weather; however it does slightly modify the severity of the Northern Hemisphere winters and summers. While we are experiencing winter, the southern hemisphere is experiencing summer. Our Winter Solstice is the southern hemisphere’s Summer Solstice. If you lived in Rio or Sydney, the winter months would be June through August and the summer months would be December through February.

Here’s some food for thought: what if the Earth’s axis was not tilted? Would we have seasons? What if the axis was tilted more than 23.5°? Or less than 23.5°? What would our seasons be like? How did the Earth get its tilt? All the planets in our solar system have some axial tilt, but they are all different. Why?

*Technical difficulties delayed the posting of this blog entry.