Few of us will ever have a way with words as Emily Dickinson, the Belle of Amherst, did:
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period –
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels …
But we all can see the special light, hear the birds, smell the flowers and feel the growing warmth of the sun on our skin just as she did.
They’re all signs that the spring equinox of 2022 is arriving. This first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere is a sign of rebirth and a time of tradition. It’s a harmonious balance between day and night – and a ray of hope in world that could really use some right now.
While Dickinson was more about the emotion than the science, let’s start off with a little scientific precision to explore the equinox.
Precisely when will the spring equinox happen?
Some folks like things scheduled down to the minute.
The spring equinox will arrive exactly at 15:33 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) March 20. Here’s how that breaks down at various points around the world (all times adjusted for Daylight Saving Time):
• Honolulu (Hawaii): 5:33 a.m.
• San Diego (California) and Vancouver (Canada): 8:33 a.m.
• Denver (Colorado) and Mexico City (Mexico): 9:33 a.m.
• Chicago (Illinois) and Kingston (Jamaica): 10:33 a.m.
• Quebec City (Canada) and Savannah (Georgia): 11:33 a.m.
• Halifax (Canada): 12:33 p.m.
Crossing over the Atlantic, here are some more places:
• Dublin (Ireland) and Accra (Ghana): 3:33 p.m.
• Budapest (Hungary): 4:33 p.m
• Tallinn (Estonia) and Cairo (Egypt): 5:33 p.m.
• Istanbul (Turkey): 6:33 p.m.
• Dubai (United Arab Emirates): 7:33 p.m.
• Bangkok (Thailand): 10:33 p.m.
• Singapore: 11:33 p.m.
For residents of Seoul, South Korea, and Tokyo, Japan, the equinox actually happens on their Monday at 12:33 a.m.
For some, fall is in the air
Folks in the Northern Hemisphere are looking forward to longer days, warmer weather, flowers and a burst of greenery. But for people living south of the equator, this equinox means they are are heading into fall.
So for Argentinians, South Africans and Australians, among others, this is a time to look forward to cooler weather and the joys of autumn.
For people who reside near the equator (in places such as Quito, Ecuador, or Singapore), none of this is really a big deal. They get roughly 12 hours of daylight and nighttime year round.
Spring equinox has another name
If you ever hear anyone say “vernal equinox,” it means the same thing.
The term equinox comes from the Latin word “equinoxium,” meaning “equality between day and night.” And vernal also comes from Latin and means “spring.”
Why does spring equinox happen?
The Earth rotates along an imaginary line that runs from North Pole to South Pole. It’s called the axis, and this rotation is what gives us day and night.
However, the axis tilts at 23.5 degrees, as NASA explains. That positions one hemisphere of the planet to get more sunlight than the other for half of the year’s orbit around the sun. This discrepancy in sunlight is what triggers the seasons.
The effect is at its maximum in late June and late December. Those are the solstices, and they have the most extreme differences between day and night, especially near the poles. (That’s why it stays dark for so long each day during the winter in places such as Scandinavia and Alaska.)
But since the winter solstice three months ago in December, you’ve noticed that our days have been getting longer in the Northern Hemisphere and the nights shorter. And now here we are at the spring equinox! Going forward, the Northern Hemisphere will be more exposed to the sun than the Southern Hemisphere. That’s why it gets increasingly hot as we head toward the summer solstice in June.
The equinoxes aren’t exactly ‘equal’
It turns out you actually get a little more daylight than darkness on the equinox – and how much so depends where you are on the planet.
How does that happen when it’s supposed to be 12 hours of day and 12 hours night? As the US National Weather Service explains, the “nearly” equal hours of day and night are because of the complex way a sunrise is measured and the refraction of sunlight in our atmosphere.
This bending of light rays “causes the sun to appear above the horizon when the actual position of the sun is below the horizon.” The day is a bit longer at higher latitudes than at the equator because it takes the sun longer to rise and set the closer you get to the poles.
We got that truly equal day/night split a few days before the official spring equinox. That’s called the equilux.
If you’re a sky watcher, the website EarthSky points out the equinoxes – spring or autumn – are a superb time to orient yourself. The equinoxes are the only two times a year the sun rises due east and sets due west for everyone on the planet.
EarthSky says the equinox is “a good day for finding east and west from your yard or other favorite site for watching the sky. Just go outside around sunset or sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to familiar landmarks.”
Another fun fact: The sun sets faster during the equinoxes than during solstices – and it’s true for both hemispheres. The reason? The setting sun hits the horizon at the steepest possible angle to Earth, EarthSky says.
The sun sets more slowly during solstices when the Earth’s tilt is most extreme. And the effect is more dramatic the farther you get from the equator. That’s why the sun never sets at all in the Arctic Circle during the time around the summer solstice.
Special sites and modern celebrations
In England, the mysterious stone structure of Stonehenge has been a popular gathering place for solstices and equinoxes. It is now open again, according to the English Heritage website. Many staffers are still wearing masks in crowded outdoor areas and indoors.
In Mexico, the Mayan site Chichén Itzá has special equinox ties. At the site, the impressive pyramid known as El Castillo was aligned so that a shadow outlining the form of a snake of light (Kukulcán) descends the steps on the equinoxes.
And it’s not just ancient sites that traditionally get in on the action.
Pike Place Market in Seattle will be celebrating its annual Daffodil Day. When shoppers visit the market, they will get a free bundle of daffodils while supplies last.
South of Boston in Hingham, they’re planning a walk on Sunday along coastal trails at the “World’s End,” a park and conservation area.
Cultures around the world celebrate the equinox. Here are a few:
Nowruz is the Persian New Year. Also known as Nauryz, Navruz or Nowrouz, it means “new day.”
It’s no coincidence it falls on the first day of spring. The Iranian calendar is a solar calendar, meaning time is determined, through astronomical observations, by Earth’s movement around the sun. So, the first day of the year always kicks off with the vernal equinox.
It’s a celebration of new beginnings: wishing prosperity and welcoming the future while shedding away the past. That’s why families use this time to deep clean their homes and closets and buy fresh clothing.
In China, trying to stand an egg upright is a popular game during the spring equinox, according to VisitBeijing.com. The custom is thought to go back thousands of years, and it’s believed that if people can get an egg to stand, they will have good luck. And people across China eat local spring vegetables.
In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day is a public holiday (on Monday, March 21, this year). Japan is thoroughly modernized, but its people still adhere to old traditions such as visiting family graves and holding family reunions to mark the spring equinox.
Top image: A superbloom of wildflowers blankets the hills of Walker Canyon in Lake Elsinore, California, in March 2019. (Matt Patterson via AP)