Friday, June 20, 2008

Get ready to party, people!

Over at the National Geographic Society’s website today is a fascinating and timely article by Brian Handwerk. One of the most fascinating things about it is that almost every paragraph consists of a single sentence. Be that as it may, here is the article for your reading pleasure and edification:

Summer Solstice Facts, for When “the Sun Stands Still”
by Brian Handwerk for National Geographic News
June 19, 2008

On Friday, June 20, the summer of 2008 will begin in earnest across the Northern Hemisphere, with the longest day of the year.

Before the sun sets on the June solstice, get the facts on why it occurs and how people throughout history have celebrated the event.

Celestial Science

—The word solstice’s Latin roots mean “sun stands still,” an apt description of how the astronomical event appears from Earth.

Since ancient times people have followed the movement of the sun as it rises, crosses the sky, and sets along a path that changes incrementally throughout the year.

For a few days surrounding the solstice, however, our star seems to rise and set at the same locations. It also hovers at the same noontime spot, pausing before its trajectory begins its incremental shift until year’s end—the December solstice.

—The “summer solstice” should be called the “June solstice,” because it is actually the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. Despite the reversed seasons, the event has long been observed south of the Equator as well.

—Winter and summer occur largely because the planet is tilted on an axis running through the poles at an angle of 23.5 degrees. As the planet orbits the sun, each hemisphere receives varying amounts of light and warmth determined by the direction in which it is tilted: summer when tilted towards the sun and winter when tilted away.

On June 20, 2008, the North Pole will tilt most directly toward the sun, so that the noon sun appears at its highest point in the sky—nearly directly overhead. This is the year’s longest day in terms of daylight hours.

At the same time, in the Southern Hemisphere, the pole is tilted farthest away from the sun, and the June solstice falls in winter, marking the shortest and darkest day of the year.

—The Northern Hemisphere soaks up more sun on the June solstice than on any other day, but the period surrounding the solstice is not as hot as the later months of July and August when daylight hours are actually waning.

That’s because at solstice time the hemisphere is still warming up after a long winter—just like a summer day is still warming at noon and will be hotter in midafternoon.

In June some ice and snowmelt continues, and ocean waters are still warming, as the hemisphere moves toward the truly hot days later in the summer.

—The sun's movements are especially pronounced in the polar regions.

North of the Arctic Circle the solstice heralds the arrival of 24-hour sunlight. The effect lasts longer the further north one goes—culminating at the pole itself.

At the North Pole the sun rises on the spring equinox—around March 21—and does not set until the fall equinox on or near September 21. As elsewhere, it climbs to its peak at the June solstice.

—The solstice occurs at the same moment all over the planet. But because earth is divided into some two dozen time zones, people experience it at different times of day.

This year’s event occurs on June 20 at 11:59 p.m. (23:59) Universal Time Coordinated (Greenwich, England). [Note. This is 7:59 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time in the United States.]

—The solstice has not occurred before June 21 since 1896. This year’s early arrival—albeit only by a minute—is due to a complex quirk of the leap-year calendar. [Note. I think the “complex quirk” Brian is talking about is the fact that although an extra day, February 29th, is added every four years, it is not added on years ending in 00, unless the year ending in 00 happens to be divisible by four, in which case the day is added. Because 2000 was divisible by four, the day was added in the century year for the first time in 400 years.]

How the Ancients Marked the Day

—The solstice is commemorated in stone on Egypt’s Giza plateau. The summer solstice sunset, as viewed from the Sphinx, sets precisely between the two Great Pyramids.

Egyptian adepts were attuned to the solstice because it often coincided with the annual Nile River floods that were so critical to agriculture in the river valley.

They learned to predict this annual event by tracking astronomical signs, including the rising of the bright star Sirius.

—North American Indians celebrated the solstice at sites such as Toltec Mounds Archaeological State Park near Little Rock, Arkansas. There the solstice sun sets directly behind a ceremonial mound constructed some thousand years ago.

—The Nazca Lines, a mysterious series of shallow trench designs dug in the Peruvian desert between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, include features aligned with both the summer and winter solstice sunsets. This discovery gave rise to the disputed theory that the massive designs, which include the figures of animals, plants, and other beings visible only from the air, were dedicated to astronomical observation.

—The solstice was particularly meaningful for the Inca, who believed that they were descended from the sun god Inti. Their two major religious ceremonies were held during the solstices.

The June solstice was celebrated with a ceremony called Inti Raymi in which offerings of food, animals, and perhaps even people were made.

Since the 1940s the holiday has again become a major celebration in Cuzco and is popular with vacationers—though the sacrifices are not what they used to be.

The famed ruins at Machu Picchu also include a semi-circular structure called the “Temple of the Sun” that was constructed around a large boulder. During the June Solstice, the sun shines through a temple window and aligns with both the boulder within and the tip of a nearby mountain peak.

The arrangement may have formed an ancient sighting device. It also links the sun, mountains and ancient rock as important aspects of Inca religion.

—Stonehenge has been aligned with the solstice for some 5,000 years. Observers in the center of the famed circle can watch the June solstice sun rise over the Heel Stone, which stands vertical just outside the monument.

Thousands of New Agers, Druids, Wiccans, sun-worshipers, and party people still congregate at the monument each year to mark the solstice.

(end of article)

The title on this post is strictly tongue-in-cheek. It was inspired by the last sentence of Brian's very informative article. After reading the entire article, you are hereby entitled to proclaim to one and all that you are smarter than a fifth-grader.


  1. Happy solstice. I'm going to celebrate by spending all day writing about the state government of Utah. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

  2. First, thanks for your visit to my raccoon story. Yes, there is an Urban Wildlife service locally and I'll call them to see about the humane relocation of the raccoon family.

    Very interesting article from National Geographic, thank you. I've had the pleasure and privilege of visiting both Stonehenge and Machu Picchu, the former visit occurring on the day *before* the June Solstice, but thrilling to me despite the timing. I probably wouldn't have enjoyed mingling with the Druids, anyway.

  3. I'm late, but enjoyed your post very much anyway! I like how you are tuned in to lengthy sentences.

  4. Jeannelle, now that the solstice has passed, my sentences will begin getting shorter.

  5. Ruth, how did that day spent writing about (ugh) the state government of Utah turn out? What happens if they like your work? Do you get to do South Dakota next?

    I once spent what seemed like a year in Ogden, Utah, but it was only a week. My buddies from the big bad corporate world were in Provo and Salt Lake City. Now *there's* an assignment!

  6. Pat: And here I thought you were just a simple girl whiling away the time in Arkansas! Think of it! Stonehenge! Macchu Pichu!
    I'm envious! You've set foot on at least three continents!

    The most exotic place I've ever visited, if you don't count Country Bear Jamboree at Disney World, is either Stockholm, Sweden, or Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Our children were born in Omaha, Nebraska, and Poughkeepsie, New York, but those places rank very low on the exotic scale. I did spend all of fifteen minutes one time in Matamoros, Mexico. Walked across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas, and bought souvenirs.