Embracing the Equinox

This (not to scale) image shows how our planet receives equal amounts of sunlight during equinoxes.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Genna Duberstein
 
Depending on your locale, equinoxes can be seen as harbingers of longer nights and gloomy weather, or promising beacons of nicer temperatures and more sunlight. Observing and predicting equinoxes is one of the earliest skills in humanity’s astronomical toolkit. Many ancient observatories around the world observed equinoxes along with the more pronounced solstices. These days, you don’t need your own observatory to know when an equinox occurs, since you’ll see it marked on your calendar twice a year! The word “equinox” originates from Latin, and translates to equal (equi-) night (-nox). But what exactly is an equinox?

An equinox occurs twice every year, in March and September. In 2022, the equinoxes will occur on March 20, at exactly 15:33 UTC (or 11:33 am EDT), and again on September 23, at 01:04 UTC (or September 22 at  9:04 pm EDT). The equinox marks the exact moment when the center of the Sun crosses the plane of our planet’s equator. The day of an equinox, observers at the equator will see the Sun directly overhead at noon. After the March equinox, observers anywhere on Earth will see the Sun’s path in the sky continue its movement further north every day until the June solstice, after which it begins traveling south. The Sun crosses the equatorial plane again during the September equinox, and continues traveling south until the December solstice, when it heads back north once again. This movement is why some refer to the March equinox as the northward equinox, and the September equinox as the southward equinox.

Image of Earth four times, taken by a satellite. Clockwise, top left, labeled SOLSTICE December 21, 2010 and shows Earth with a lopsided shadow  with the majority of the Southern Hemisphere lit. Next is EQUINOX March 20, 2011 and shows the Earth evenly lit from pole to pole. Then is another EQUINOX September 20, 2011* and the Earth is again lit evenly from pole to pole, half shadow and half light. The asterisk is followed up with *Image taken a few days early, equinox took place on Sept 23, 2011. Finally the last Earth is labeled SOLSTICE June 21, 2011 and this time the Northern Hemisphere is lit and the lopsided shadow is mostly in the Southern Hemisphere.
 
Scenes of Earth from orbit from season to season, as viewed by EUMETSAT. Notice how the terminator - the line between day and night - touches both the North and South Poles in the equinox images. See how the shadow is lopsided for each solstice, too: sunlight pours over the Northern Hemisphere for the June solstice, while the sunlight dramatically favors the Southern Hemisphere for the December solstice.
Source: bit.ly/earthequinox Images: NASA/Robert Simmon

Our Sun shines equally on both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres during equinoxes, which is why they are the only times of the year when the Earth’s North and South Poles are simultaneously lit by sunlight. Notably, the length of day and night on the equinox aren’t precisely equal; the date for that split depends on your latitude, and may occur a few days earlier or later than the equinox itself. The complicating factors? Our Sun and atmosphere! The Sun itself is a sphere and not a point light source, so its edge is refracted by our atmosphere as it rises and sets, which adds several minutes of light to every day. The Sun doesn’t neatly wink on and off at sunrise and sunset like a light bulb, and so there isn’t a perfect split of day and night on the equinox - but it’s very close.

Equinoxes are associated with the changing seasons. In March, Northern Hemisphere observers welcome the longer, warmer days heralded by their vernal, or spring, equinox, but Southern Hemisphere observers note the shorter days – and longer, cooler nights - signaled by their autumnal, or fall, equinox. Come September, the reverse is true. Discover the reasons for the seasons, and much more, with NASA at nasa.gov

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Last Updated: February 18, 2022
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