Celebrations / Science / Travel

Happy Solstice Y’all: Taller And Thinner For The Holidays

SSI Lighthouse

Today, while most of us are having lunch or running holiday errands, the sun will pause briefly in its journey across the sky, and shift its course slightly northward. In the Northern Hemisphere, today is the winter solstice, and it occurs at 12:11 p.m. EST.  The sun’s path doesn’t actually change, but thanks to the earth’s 23° tilt, it looks that way to observant earthlings.

The solstice produces the shortest day, and the longest night of the year. Today that trend will reverse. Starting tomorrow, days will be a longer and nights shorter. With instant light at our fingertips, all this astronomical hoopla is no big deal, but for most of human history, having more daylight was cause for celebration.

Wroclaw Sun

I won’t be lighting bonfires or attending any raucous parties, but my celebration will be a personal, astronomical observation here at home. In addition to the shortest day, the solstice creates the longest noontime shadow of the year. In true geek fashion, I plan on measuring the length of my shadow, and making a comparison to the measurement at the summer solstice, which occurs on June 21, 2014 at 6:51 AM (ET).

Bratislava Sundial

Hey, it should be fun (in a nerdy sort of way)! Doesn’t everyone want to be taller and thinner? Give it a try where you live and report back.

Happy Solstice,

Animation7*** Update: Report From the Field ***
With the help of my trusty lab assistant Terri, I measured my shadow at noon on the Winter Solstice. I am 6 ft 1in, and my shadow was 9 ft 4 in. I suspect that there’s some trigonometric rule that explains why my shadow is almost exactly 1.5 times my height, but my trig is a bit rusty. Also, unless I miscalculated, the angle of the sun is 33° above the horizon. My sister-in-law Ellen would say that this is a perfect example of “math for no reason,” but there you have it.

33 thoughts on “Happy Solstice Y’all: Taller And Thinner For The Holidays

    • Like you Laura, I thought that the Winter Solstice was the first day of winter as well. But according to the Naval Observatory: “The Earth reaches perihelion – the point in its orbit closest to the Sun – in early January, only about two weeks after the December solstice. Thus winter begins in the northern hemisphere at about the time that the Earth is nearest the Sun.” It’s amazing how many times I’ve seen the Solstice called the first day of winter, so we aren’t the only ones that got it wrong. BTW, check out the post for my observation update. Happy Holidays! ~James

      • Be glad you aren’t as tall as your shadow, you’d never find pants to fit. I’m sure there is a mathematical formula you could use, but why ruin the mystery. All these years my calendars have said that the 21st of Dec. was the first day of winter. For me, the first day of winter is the first time it snows, calendars and the Naval Observatory be damned! 😉

  1. Oh darn! Found your post too late, James- it’s dark here already 🙂 I don’t suppose the difference will be at all noticeable if I conduct my bit of the experiment tomorrow. (if it’s not raining!) Actually I’m quite tall and thin naturally, so it doesn’t really matter 🙂

    • Jo, I’m sure that missing the solstice won’t make much difference in your measurement. And actually, it would be good to have a data point from farther north (I’m at approx, 31° N Lat). My shadow was 3 ft. 2 in. longer than me. BTW, check out the post for my observation update. Happy Holidays. ~James

    • It worked for me as well Martha, but the bad news may come in June. In theory, my shadow at the summer solstice should be much shorter. I hope it doesn’t add any pounds. Thanks for dropping by the blog, and Happy Holidays! ~ James

  2. Perhaps in ‘geek’ like fashion you could do monthly measurements of the shadow James 🙂 I totally did not about the lengthening shadows. I’m hoping for sun here tomorrow to check it out. Fun post!

    • Thanks Sue. I had success with my measurement, and my shadow was 50% taller than I am. As I said to Restless Jo (in the UK), it will be good to have a data point from farther north. Geeks Rock! ~James

      • My husband is trying to beat you in ‘Geek of the Year’ competition. So… he calculated that you at 31 degrees latitude and we at 51 degrees, the sun’s high angle would be 35 degrees for you and 15 degrees for us. Yikes!! No wonder we are freezing! The result is my shadow is over 250% longer than I am. I am 5’6″ and my shadow measured over 18 feet long!!

      • Brilliant Sue! I had a good laugh when I read your comment. Thanks to you and Dave for the measurement. 18 ft is amazing. I’d never thought of this, but do you know what this means? If I walk south, at some point (I think it’s the Tropic of Capricorn.), I will have no shadow at all, and then my shadow will go negative (ie point south instead of north). And if you walk north, your shadow will continue to get longer until you reach the point where there is no longer daylight at noon (The Arctic Circle). See, for us geeks this is yet another interesting, but totally useless piece of information. Happy Holidays to you and Dave, and stay warm. ~James

  3. absolutely zero-none of my friends takes the solstice or equinox seriously.. i’ll say, ‘we have many days to chatter and talk at sunset/sunrise/high noon, but on this day, i want to be somewhere to observe the sun, think about where i am on the planet, and just absorb… they respect my request, but their hearts aren’t in it! it’s nice to know someone who does care about those days!

    • Hey Lisa, thanks for the comment and Happy Holidays. It’s great to hear from someone near the equator (Are you actually north of south?) You know, I always think about the equinox and solstice, but honestly, had never given the shadow deal much thought. Did you notice the comment from our blogging friend Sue, who lives in Calgary. Her shadow was 18 ft long. Which makes me wonder, how long is your shadow these days. I’ve been on the equator a couple of times, but I was so excited to be there, that I never noticed my shadow (duh). All this may just be nerdy science, but like you, these astronomical events give me pause. It’s one of the few ways that we can truly experience and realize that we live on a big revolving ball. ~James

  4. Only in Nerdville am I taller and skinnier. Nonetheless, I like the thought. And even if I do not get any taller in the coming year, I hope to get a bit skinnier (with no help from the ‘zenith angle’). Thanks for a fun story. I hope you both have had a wonderful Christmas and the New Year brings health and happiness. – Mike

    • Happy Holidays to you and Florence as well Mike. After the excesses of Christmas and New Years, I guess that I’ll have to take the celestial smoke and mirrors to look taller and thinner. I thought that it was pretty cool on this post that I got comments from someone in Calgary and someone on the equator. It’s fun to get a reminder of what a truly global endeavor blogging is. Have a fun New Years and take it easy shakin’ a leg. ~James

  5. so i’m wondering if there’s a geologist in the house who might be able to explain this… http://thewatchers.adorraeli.com/2013/09/03/timeline-of-most-important-events-at-bayou-corne-sinkhole-louisiana-sinkhole/
    i’m getting spooky premonitions about it now, though i’ve been watching it for a year…

    the stories about volcano arenal in CR said the locals thought it odd that the streams started getting warm before that sleeping monster belched itself out of the earth! what’s happening in louisiana? it that monster going to gulp half of the state and make the next reelfoot lake?

    • Interesting stuff Lisa. I loved the spooky video of the trees being sucked down. Re: an answer of why – the hydrogeologist on site said he didn’t have a clue, so I could just guess. It’s probably a combination of things at work, but keep in mind that all this activity is a result of movements of salt, rock, water and natural gas. Natural gas is trapped around salt domes in this area, and it has been produced for decades. If the salt dome is removed, the gas will leak out. The sinkhole is getting bigger, but because it’s all related to the salt dome beneath, it can’t get much bigger than the salt dome. What I can say is that the company mining the brine is in lots of hot water (no pun intended), and they’ll have to pay the piper at some point. Thanks for an interesting link. ~James

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