Why the equinox ushers in the arrival of fall

Why the equinox ushers in the arrival of fall

What is an Equinox?

What are equinoxes? These astronomical events are what causes them? These astronomical events influence the seasons and hours that daylight is available on each planet.

Published September 16, 2022

4 min read

Every six months, once in March and again in September, an equinox splits Earth’s day almost in half, giving us about 12 hours of daylight and 12 of night.

On September 22, 2022, the autumnal equinox will signal the coming of fall for the Northern Hemisphere. Then, on March 20, 2023, nature will once again bring us the vernal equinox, the time of year that ushers in spring in the North. These dates are used to swap for the vernal (or autumnal) equinoxes in Southern Hemisphere. (Here’s why each season begins twice. )

Why do equinoxes happen?

Stonehenge has long been a popular destination for the equinoxes. To celebrate Earth’s balance of light, druids and pagans gather here.

Stonehenge has long been a popular destination for the equinoxes. To celebrate Earth’s balance of light, dark and heat, Druids as well as Pagans gather here.

Photograph by Donald Slack / Alamy Stock Photo

Our planet normally orbits the sun on an axis that’s tilted 23.5 degrees, meaning that the hemispheres trade off getting more warmth from the sun. Two times a year, Earth’s orbit and its axial tilt combine so that the sun sits right above Earth’s Equator, casting the dividing line between the light and dark parts of the planet–the so-called terminator, or twilight zone–through the North and South Poles.

The terminator doesn’t perfectly divide the planet into dark and light; Earth’s atmosphere bends sunlight by 37 miles (60 kilometers), which equals half a degree. This means that one half of the planet is still slightly more lit than the others, even on an equinox.

Earth isn’t the only planet that experiences equinoxes: Every planet in our solar system has them. In 2009, the Cassini probe in orbit around Saturn captured an equinox on the ringed planet. As on Earth, equinoxes occur every half-year on Saturn, but that equals 15 years on Earth, making Cassini’s photo session a unique event.

Marking the equinox

Ancient cultures have tracked the equinoxes in different ways over the millennia. From constructed monuments, like pyramids, to stone engravings that acted as calendars, to churches that incorporated the sun into their architecture, civilizations marked the passing of the sun and the seasons with great accuracy.

(Listen: In this episode of our podcast Overheard, we chat about Nowruz, an ancient Persian holiday marking the new year at the moment of the vernal equinox. )

Some cultures continue to celebrate the equinox today, like the Lakota Tribe of the U.S. Midwest. The Lakota connect the sky and the earth by making tobacco from the redwillow tree. This matches the Dried Willow constellation where the sun rises at the spring equinox. This sacred tobacco is smoked in a ceremony to celebrate the return of longer days.

And at Stonehenge’s equinox celebrations in England, druids, pagans, and anyone else who wants to join in gather to witness the sunrise over the ancient stones.

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