Today is an important day for Alaskans… and probably for anyone that lives in the far north. Today is the winter solstice – the day with the fewest hours of daylight, and the day where the sun reaches its lowest high point in the sky. For the next six months, every day will have a little bit more daylight. The gains are modest at first, but within a few weeks, we’ll be measuring the gains in minutes per day, and those minutes add up over six months. For Alaskans, today is the day that things start to get better.
That is, if what you mean by things is, the seasons.
Alaskans are probably a little over-focused on the solstice, given that there is some lag between the least amount of daylight and the most amount of crappy weather. However, if the issue is just the darkness, then sun-watching is a legitimate Alaskan Winter activity.
Which brings me to my office. The building where I work is a long, narrow building which is oriented almost exactly north-south. There are offices on either side of a long, central hallway, and at the south end of the building there is a lounge or waiting area that has large, floor-to-ceiling windows. Between the lounge area and the hallway is a door.
At local noon every sunny day, the sun shines in the windows on the south side of the building. If it is in the late fall through winter, the sun is low in the sky and it shines against the north wall of the lounge, through the door, and down the hallway. The sun shines down the hall quite a ways, depending on the angle of the sun. Today, being the winter solstice, the sun shines down the hall as far as is possible. A few days either side of the solstice, the sun does not stream quite as far down the hall.
This makes my office a solar and geophysical observatory! If I mark the position of the sun on various days, I can use it as a calendar. If I note the time that the sun is centered on the hallway, I can use it as a sundial. If measure the length of the sun stream on the winter solstice, I can calculate my latitude, and if I know the time, I can calculate my longitude!
I know… this isn’t particularly interesting to most people… not even Alaskans. But a lot of ancient geophysical observatories worked just like this.
It is like living in a modern Stonehenge!
Happy solstice, everyone! It gets better from here on in (unless you’re in the southern hemisphere).
(Here are some 1 PM pictures from my hallway)