Vail Daily column: The vernal equinox
March 15, 2014
It's hard to notice the extra three minutes of light each day, but every sunset since the dead of winter, I rejoice for the extra time we get to see the sun. Like a half birthday for the seasons, the vernal equinox marks the day that the Earth's axis is perpendicular to the sun's light and receives almost equal parts day and night. Also celebrated as the first day of spring, March 20 is a day of celestial balance.
As we careen on our path around the sun, our world is tilted at 23.4 degrees. This tilt is the cause of our four seasons and the changing length of our days throughout the year. For the northern hemisphere, during the darkest and coldest months of the winter, Colorado is tilted away from the sun. In contrast, during the summer, we lean towards the sun gaining more direct sunlight and experiencing longer days. And on the equinox, the Earth will neither be tilted away nor towards the sun, but the equator will sit perfectly parallel to our nearest star's rays of light. The sun will rise precisely due east and set exactly in the west which gives us our nearly balanced 12 hours of night and day.
More Light Than Night
If you want to get technical about it — and some people do — on the spring equinox we have more daylight than night. This extra bit of light is due to the fact that sunrise is considered to be when the very top of the sun peaks above the crest of the horizon and sunset happens only when the last beam of light disappears. In addition, the atmosphere acts as a lens to bend the light of the sun around the curvature of the Earth so we get about seven more minutes of light each day. When we see the first rays of dawn on any given day, we actually don't have a direct line of sight to the sun for another few minutes. So if you are really hankering for an equilux, which is the day on which we truly have equal parts day and night, look no further than today. The astronomical truth is that the equinox is more about position in the sky while the equilux is the true point of equal day and night.
“Take time to get out and about to enjoy the extra sunlight and don’t forget to keep a watchful eye for other signs of spring, such as the crocuses and daffodils that will soon pop out of the snow.”
Special Time of Year
The equinox is also a special time of year for many cultures both contemporary and ancient. Since before Common Era, the vernal equinox was the festival of Eostre, a goddess in Germanic paganism, and it celebrated for the cyclical return of life and light. Represented by a hare, Eostre is the basis for many of the traditions associated with the Christian holiday Easter. In Japan, the holiday known as Higan is commemorated on both equinoxes by Buddhists to honor the spiritual passage from life to death.
Many cultures use the alignment of light on the equinoxes to ritualize a new phase of the year. Located in the center of Chichen Itza, Mexico, El Castillo, a very classic looking Mayan pyramid, displays a large shadowy serpent that can be seen slithering down the steps only on the weeks surrounding the equinoxes. Other celebrations, from the festival of Isis to the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, celebrate this equality of light and dark as they recognize balance among the seasons and new beginnings.
As you prepare for the coming balance of light, consider this an opportunity to restore balance in our own life as well. Take time to get out and about to enjoy the extra sunlight and don't forget to keep a watchful eye for other signs of spring, such as the crocuses and daffodils that will soon pop out of the snow. And when the vernal equinox arrives, celebrate in whichever way seems right to you.
David Broomfield is a graduate educator at Walking Mountains, who values the simple pleasures in life from soap bubbles and clicky pens, to bright colored bugs and strong winds.