Happy to be here: Here comes the sun

Published 5:46 pm Friday, January 5, 2024

We experienced our shortest day and longest night on the winter solstice, Dec. 21. In Farmville, sunrise that day was 7:22 a.m. and sunset 5 p.m., just over nine and a half hours of daylight. For people who like to bask in the sun, there’s good news. The amount of sunshine we receive each day will increase steadily until the summer solstice (June 20) when we’ll receive fourteen hours and forty-five minutes of daylight.

Some people think we gain light in the spring because we set our clocks to daylight saving time. This is not true. The number of daylight hours grows because of the earth’s tilted rotational axis. When the northern hemisphere is angled away from the sun, our days are short and cold. Winter. As the year progresses, the northern and southern hemispheres swap their orientations. We get longer days and summer. Setting clocks to a commonly agreed-upon designation coordinates human activity, but it doesn’t influence astronomical geometry.

Another confusion occurs when people suppose that it’s cold and dark this time of year because we’re farther away from the sun. Again, not true. Earth is actually closest to the sun during our winter. Earth orbits the sun at an average distance of about 93 million miles, but the orbit is slightly elliptical. Earth’s closest point to the sun is called perihelion (about 91.4 million miles). Perihelion occurs about two weeks after the winter solstice (this year perihelion fell on January 2, 2024). The point farthest away from the sun is called aphelion (about 94.5 million miles). Aphelion occurs about two weeks after the summer solstice (this year aphelion will be on July 5).

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Our sun is full of other surprises. Ancient people assumed that the sun revolved around the earth. Myths told of its daily journey and its nightly respite. In the sixteenth century Nicolaus Copernicus described a model of the solar system placing the sun at its center. After that, science began to embrace the notion that the earth orbited the sun. The sun did not move across the sky. The ground upon which people were standing revolved causing the sun’s illusion of rising and setting.

Another astonishment occurred when people pointed telescopes at the sun. Since the time of Aristotle, people believed the sun was perfect and unchanging. This theory was challenged when observers witnessed an ever-changing march of blemishes across its surface. Today, we call these sunspots. 

Sunspots are created as the sun’s magnetic fields become stretched, twisted, and tangled. From time to time, they cause solar flares or large eruptions of solar radiation called coronal mass ejections. These types of solar activity can disrupt radio communications and electrical systems on earth. They can also cause beautiful atmospheric displays known as auroras. Solar activity increases and quiets in cycles, spending approximately 11 years in each phase. The current cycle is one of increased activity, and solar observers anticipate that it may peak soon.

Our sun promises a special show for residents of North America later this year. A total solar eclipse will traverse the continent on April 8, 2024. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon is positioned exactly between the earth and the sun, causing the sun to appear blotted out. The April eclipse will begin in Mexico and traverse the United States from Texas through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine before moving on into Canada.

To view the total eclipse, you’ll need to travel to a spot in the path of totality (for example, Paducah, Kentucky; Evansville, Indiana; or Cleveland, Ohio). In Farmville, we’ll get a partial eclipse (from 2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.), with the maximum coverage occurring at 3:17 p.m., at which time the moon will blot out 83.58% of the solar disc. Even at the eclipse maximum, the sun will still shine as bright as day. Never look directly at the sun. You’ll need to use a device for indirect viewing or eclipse glasses.

Our sun, a yellow dwarf star, reliably shines on us every day, even when clouds block our view. This year, I hope your journey around the sun provides ample opportunities for wonder and amazement.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.