What is the summer solstice? An astronomer explains

21 Jun 2019

Stonehenge. Image: © andrewmroland/Stock.adobe.com

Prof Stephen Schneider from University of Massachusetts Amherst explains the celestial movements that make this day special.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

The summer solstice marks the official start of summer. It brings the longest day and shortest night of the year for the 88pc of Earth’s population who live in the northern hemisphere.

People around the world observe the change of seasons with bonfires and festivals and Fête de la Musique celebrations.

Astronomers can calculate an exact moment for the solstice, when Earth reaches the point in its orbit where the north pole is angled closest to the sun. That moment will be at 11.54am Eastern Time (4.54pm IST) on 21 June this year. From Earth, the sun will appear farthest north relative to the stars. People living on the Tropic of Cancer, 23.5 degrees north of the Equator, will see the sun pass straight overhead at noon.

Six months from now, the sun will reach its southern extreme and pass overhead for people on the Tropic of Capricorn, and northerners will experience their shortest days of the year – the winter solstice.

The sun’s angle relative to Earth’s equator changes so gradually close to the solstices that, without instruments, the shift is difficult to perceive for about 10 days. This is the origin of the word solstice, which means ‘solar standstill’.

This slow shift means that 21 June is only about one second longer than 20 June at mid-northern latitudes. It will be about a week before there’s more than a minute change to the calculated amount of daylight.

Even that’s an approximation. Earth’s atmosphere bends light over the horizon by different amounts depending on weather, which can introduce changes of more than a minute to sunrise and sunset times.

Historic celebrations

Monuments at Stonehenge in England, Karnak in Egypt and Chankillo in Peru reveal that people around the world have taken note of the sun’s northern and southern travels for more than 5,000 years.

From Stonehenge’s circle of standing stones, the sun will rise directly over an ancient avenue leading away to the north-east on the solstice. We know little about the people who built Stonehenge, or why they went to such great effort to construct it – moving multi-tonne stones from rock outcrops as far as 140 miles away.

All this to mark the spot on the horizon where the sun returns each year to rest for a while before moving south again.

Perhaps they, like us, celebrated this signal of the coming change of seasons.

The Conversation

By Prof Stephen Schneider

Stephen Schneider is a professor of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His research focuses on issues of low surface brightness (and, possibly, no surface brightness) objects.