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updated: 12/10/2011 9:07 AM

Winter solstice marks the longest night of the year

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  • Tiny mounds of snow sit atop the remains of wildflowers as the sun sets at Johnson's Mound Forest Preserve in Elburn. The area had a slight dusting of snow earlier in the day before the sun broke through.

       Tiny mounds of snow sit atop the remains of wildflowers as the sun sets at Johnson's Mound Forest Preserve in Elburn. The area had a slight dusting of snow earlier in the day before the sun broke through.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • The snow covered ice covering at Nelson Lake Marsh takes on a bluish hue with white highlights as the sun sets on a December evening. Small animal tracks can be seen in bottom of frame.

       The snow covered ice covering at Nelson Lake Marsh takes on a bluish hue with white highlights as the sun sets on a December evening. Small animal tracks can be seen in bottom of frame.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • The sun slips beyond the horizon at Nelson Lake Marsh in Batavia, turning the sky from golden to pink and making the snowcovered marsh take on a purplish glow. Soon it will be the longest night of the year, the winter solstice.

       The sun slips beyond the horizon at Nelson Lake Marsh in Batavia, turning the sky from golden to pink and making the snowcovered marsh take on a purplish glow. Soon it will be the longest night of the year, the winter solstice.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • A winter sunset along Swanberg Road in Campton Township comes early at this time of year.

       A winter sunset along Swanberg Road in Campton Township comes early at this time of year.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
By Valerie Blaine
Forest Preserve District of Kane County

The sun sets early these days, and mornings are cold and dark. The sun, it seems, has forsaken us and taken its warmth with it.

Not to worry, that's soon to change. At half past midnight on Thursday, Dec. 22, the sun will begin its return.

Known as the winter solstice, this event is the annual turning point from ever-increasing darkness to steadily increasing light. The pivotal change will occur at 12:30 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 22. If you sleep through it, rest assured that the sun has not left us for good. It's on its way back.

The hows and whys of the solstice start with the earth and the great star we know as the sun. The earth cruises around the sun day in day out, year after year, millennium after millennium in a regular and predictable orbit. The earth is a bit tipsy, and it tilts on its axis as it makes its voyage around the sun. In winter, the earth tips away from the sun. In summer, it leans toward the sun.

The North Pole of the earth leans farthest away from the sun in December. This is winter for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It's a time when the sun casts long shadows and traverses low across the southern horizon. It's also a time when wildlife hunkers down and humans reach for the light switch.

On the winter solstice the earth begins to tip again, ever so slightly, and the North Pole begins to move closer to the sun. Imperceptibly at first, the days grow longer. By the spring equinox in March the length of daylight is equal to the length of darkness. From the equinox on, the days grow noticeably longer until the North Pole leans even closer to the sun. Then, in June comes a time when the pole is closest to the sun. This is the summer solstice and marks the longest day of the year.

As much as we like the long days of summer, the earth just won't stay in one position. From the time of the summer solstice, it's back to tilting the other way again. Day length decreases bit by bit until the autumnal equinox in September. Once again day and night are equal. After the autumnal equinox, we see shorter and shorter days. And lo and behold, just when we think we'll never see the sun again, the winter solstice occurs. The planet shifts, and the North Pole moves sunward once again.

All the tilting back and forth is enough to make you dizzy! But these planetary tilts create our summer, winter and fall. And in December, the winter solstice is the reason for the season.

The natural world revolves around the seasons and cycles of light and dark. Photoperiod, or the length of light and dark, triggers the growth and reproductive cycles of flora and fauna. It affects photosynthesis and leaf fall in plants. It signals courtship, mating, and migration in many animals.

Darkness, just as light, is a necessity. Strictly nocturnal animals such as the Eastern Screech Owl and the Eastern Long-eared Bat are most active in the middle of the night. Hunting abilities are honed for capturing prey in a shroud of darkness. Fireflies must have darkness in order to communicate. They find mates by specific Morse code-like flashes. If it's not dark enough, the female firefly may not pick up signals from suitors. Darkness, for these animals, is a good thing.

What about us? Humans have long feared darkness. We are afraid of the unknown, and the darkness harbors things unknown. Be it saber-toothed tigers lurking in the shadows or the boogeyman under the bed, these are the scary things born of the darkness.

Prior to the technological revolution, human cultures were blanketed in winter darkness for many months each year. The nights were long and the winds were cold. Ancient cultures recognized the astronomical change that brought the sun back every year. Throughout the world people anxiously awaited the winter solstice, knowing that the sun would surely return. Many cultures celebrated the winter solstice with elaborate ceremonies and raucous partying. The return of the sun brought hope and promise for the future.

In the modern era of human hegemony on the planet, darkness is almost a thing of the past. The dark has been eliminated as the world has been illuminated. From the invention of the incandescent light bulb to the LED, the darkness of winter has been conquered. We can have light 24/7 with the flip of a switch, the push of a remote, or a keystroke on the computer. Lighting technology has come a long way from the dim glow of a campfire.

Although the winter solstice goes largely unnoticed in light-happy suburbia today, it remains a focal point of the natural year and it still bears some cultural import. Who hasn't huddled with family or friends by a fireplace in December, rejoicing in the light and warmth? There's something comforting in knowing that the longest night of the year won't last forever.

As a solstice resolution for 2011, get in tuned with the cycle of night and day. Take a walk and watch the sun fade into the prairie horizon. Follow deer tracks at twilight. Look into the shadows. Listen for owls. Enjoy a gentle snowfall in the dark. Follow a star in the dark winter sky.

• Valerie Blaine is a fan of dark skies on winter nights. She is naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County and can be reached at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

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