Curious Nature: Earth, a jewel in space
Vail, CO, Colorado
The Earth, a speck of blue, green, and white dust in the grand scheme of the universe, hurtles through the vast reaches of space. We’re not alone on this journey. We’re part of the solar system, connected to the sun and other planets through the powerful force of gravity. Our solar system lives in the outer arms of the giant spiral-shaped Milky Way, home to approximately 100 billion stars, including our life-sustaining sun. Even our galaxy has company, traveling through space at immense speeds with a nearby cluster of galaxies. The immense forces and sizes involved in maintaining these motions are huge, hard to even fathom, but these same forces impact life on earth in a variety of ways.
We all know that the Earth rotates around on its axis once every 24 hours, bringing us the simple beauty of each sunrise and sunset. At the equator, the surface of the earth moves at a little over 1,000 mph while, at the poles, it is virtually still. Aside from the creation of the daily cycles of day and night, the spinning of the Earth also impacts global weather patterns, ocean currents, and even how toilets flush! If the magnitude of this spinning isn’t enough to make you dizzy, consider, then, that we are also revolving around the sun at a speed of about 67,000 mph!
The earth’s revolution, coupled with the tilt of its axis, is the ultimate cause of our climate and weather. The fact that the Earth is tilted on its axis influences the intensity of light and heat we receive, dependent on our latitude. As November wanes, the earth is moving from its neutral position, pointed sideways relative to the sun, to a point where the northern pole will be pointed directly away from the sun, marking the winter solstice on Dec. 22. This leaves us northern folks to warm ourselves and our atmosphere with only the meager heat from the sun’s sharply slanted rays. The most direct rays of the sun on this day will be 23 degrees below the equator, at the Tropic of Capricorn. As the days grow shorter and colder, I can almost feel this tipping point, and I always rejoice when we make it to the solstice and the days finally begin to grow longer.
Fall has always represented a time of transition. The Earth doesn’t take a stand directly towards or away from the sun, but wavers at a point of indecision, staring off towards some mysterious point somewhere out in space. The planet itself can’t seem to make up its mind, as the weather alternates between clear, sunny days and short-lived, but strong storms that can bring rain, sleet, snow, or all three. Wildlife scatters, hides, or, in the case of deciduous trees, plays dead. The ever-unceasing motion of our planet, the eternal cycles of air, water, matter, and planets continue, and this transition, too, shall pass and bring way to the beauty, peace, and consistency of winter.
As we sit here on the edge of winter’s precipice, there is a whole season of joy and excitement ahead. Winter brings new ways of recreating and an always-changing definition of beauty. Knowing the scientific reasons behind the seasons and other natural phenomena helps us to identify with the beauty and excitement of each new natural event on a deeper level. During the summer, it seems as if there is nothing more beautiful than the fresh dew glinting off a field of wildflowers, but the serene stillness of a new snowfall and the precision geometry of snowflakes challenge this definition of beauty year after year. And as this year brings us further along on our trip hurtling through space at almost incalculable speeds, fasten your seat belt and hang on tight, because we never know what the next turn around the sun will bring. We can only hope that it brings us all full circle on our individual journeys to finding peace and happiness. Enjoy the winter everyone!
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate studies at Walking Mountains Science Center. She is currently slogging through muddy trails and eagerly awaiting enough snow to turn the evening walk into an evening ski.