But what is the solstice exactly?
There are two solstices in a year, the June solstice (usually June 21) and the December solstice (usually December 21). On the June solstice the sun reaches its highest point in the sky for an observer at the North Pole. On the December solstice the sun reaches its highest point in the sky for an observer at the South Pole. Solstices also mark the change from fall to winter or spring to summer.
The solstices happen because of the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation with respect to its orbital path around the sun. The axis of rotation is an imaginary line drawn straight through Earth connecting the North Pole to the South Pole. This line is tilted 23.5° from Earth’s orbital path around the Sun. This means that the sun’s light does not hit the Earth evenly at a particular latitude above and below the equator. This tilt is the cause of Earth’s seasons. (The equator is an imaginary line drawn right around Earth’s middle, like a belt. It divides Earth into the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres. The imaginary lines around Earth that are parallel to the Equator are called lines of latitude. They are numbered from 0° to 90°. The one at 0° is the equator itself. The higher the number, the farther north (if it’s a + number) or south (if it’s a − number). )
Because of Earth’s tilt is 23.5° the latitudes of +23.5° and −23.5° are special and have special names. The one in the Northern Hemisphere, +23.5° latitude, is called the Tropic of Cancer. The one in the Southern Hemisphere, − 23.5° latitude, is called the Tropic of Capricorn.
These are the latitudes where the Sun is directly overhead at noon once a year. In the Northern hemisphere, on the Tropic of Cancer, that is the June Solstice. In the Southern Hemisphere, on the Tropic of Capricorn, that is the December Solstice. These solstice days are the days with the most (for Summer) or fewest (for Winter) hours of sunlight during the whole year.
Every six months, Jan Koeman of Zierikzee, the Netherlands, uses a beer-can solargraph to record the progress of the sun in the sky from solstice to solstice. Here is a collection of solargraph images compiled by Jan from his site.
credit: NASA / Jan Koeman
Earth Images acquired December 21, 2010 – September 20, 2011. One of the most frequently misunderstood concepts in science is the reason for Earth’s seasons. As we experience the September equinox today—anyone try to balance an egg yet?—we thought we’d offer a space-based view of what’s going on.
Around 6 a.m. local time each day, the Sun, Earth, and any geosynchronous satellite form a right angle, affording a nadir (straight down) view of the terminator, where the shadows of nightfall meet the sunlight of dusk and dawn. The shape of this line between night and day varies with the seasons, which means different lengths of days and differing amounts of warming sunshine. (The line is actually a curve because the Earth is round, but satellite images only show it in two-dimensions.)
The Spinning Enhanced Visible and Infrared Imager (SEVIRI) on EUMETSAT’s Meteosat-9 captured these four views of the day-night terminator on December 21, 2010, and March 20, June 21, and September 20, 2011. Each image was taken at 6:12 a.m. local time. On March 20 and September 20, the terminator is a straight north-south line, and the Sun is said to sit directly above the equator. On December 21, the Sun resides directly over the Tropic of Capricorn when viewed from the ground, and sunlight spreads over more of the Southern Hemisphere.
On June 21, the Sun sits above the Tropic of Cancer, spreading more sunlight in the north and turning the tables on the south. The bulge of our spherical Earth blocks sunlight from the far hemisphere at the solstices; that same curvature allows the Sun’s rays to spread over more area near the top and bottom of the globe. Of course, it is not the Sun that is moving north or south through the seasons, but a change in the orientation and angles between the Earth and its nearest star. The axis of the Earth is tilted 23.5 degrees relative to the Sun and the ecliptic plane.
The axis is tilted away from the Sun at the December solstice and toward the Sun at the June solstice, spreading more and less light on each hemisphere. At the equinoxes, the tilt is at a right angle to the Sun and the light is spread evenly. The equinox and changing of the seasons occurs on September 23, 2011 at 9:05 a.m. Universal Time. (Our September image above is a few days early.)
Equinox means “equal night” in Latin, capturing the idea that daytime and nighttime are equal lengths everywhere on the planet. That is true of the Sun’s presence above the horizon, though it does not account for twilight, when the Sun’s rays extend from beyond the horizon to illuminate our gas-filled atmosphere. NASA images and animation by Robert Simmon, using data ©2010 EUMETSAT.
Caption by Mike Carlowicz. Instrument: Meteosat
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory NASA image use policy. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center enables NASA’s mission through four scientific endeavors: Earth Science, Heliophysics, Solar System Exploration, and Astrophysics. Goddard plays a leading role in NASA’s accomplishments by contributing compelling scientific knowledge to advance the Agency’s mission.