By Kelly Baughman
Now that the heat of summer is upon us, the official first day of summer is fast approaching. But ‘Betcha Didn’t Know’…. the summer solstice is more complex than just a day that marks our favorite season here on the Gulf Coast.
The summer solstice is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and this year falls on June 21st. The term “solstice” is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because the sun’s relative position in the sky at noon does not appear to change much during the solstice and its surrounding days. The rest of the year, the Earth’s tilt on its axis (roughly 23.5 degrees) causes the sun’s path in the sky to rise and fall from one day to the next.
You may wonder why, if the solstice is the longest day of the year, and thus gets the most sunlight, the temperature usually doesn’t reach its annual peak until a month or two later. It’s because water, which makes up most of the Earth’s surface, has a high specific heat, meaning it takes a while to both heat up and cool down. Because of this, the Earth’s temperature takes about six weeks to catch up to the sun.
People have long celebrated the arrival of the summer solstice around the world. Many once believed that Stonehenge was the site of ancient druid solstice celebrations because of the way the sun lines up with the stones on the winter and summer solstices. While there’s no proven connection between Celtic solstice celebrations and Stonehenge, these days, thousands of modern pagans gather at the landmark to watch the sunrise on the solstice.
In addition to the celebrations at Stonehenge, celebrations like the Sankthans, or “Midsummer” to Scandinavian countries is observed with bonfires. In fact, the world’s largest recorded bonfire ever was held by the people of Ålesund, Norway in 2016. The fire raged at its largest at 155.5 feet tall on the day of the summer solstice.
Each year on the summer solstice, the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks celebrate their status as the most northerly baseball team on the planet with a game that starts at 10:00 pm and stretches well into the following morning, without the need for artificial light, known as the Midnight Sun Game. The tradition originated in 1906 and was taken over by the Goldpanners in their first year of existence, 1960.
You might think that because the solstice occurs in summer that it means the Earth is closest to the sun in its elliptical revolution. However, the Earth is actually closest to the sun when the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter and is farthest away during the summer solstice. The warmth of summer comes exclusively from the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and not from how close it is to the sun at any given time.
Interestingly enough, Earth is not the only planet to have a summer solstice. Mars’ solstice occurs a few days after earth’s June solstice. On Uranus, each summer solstice lasts for 42 years. This also means that each winter solstice lasts the same amount of time for the opposite hemisphere. Venus and Jupiter barely experience solstice due to the position of their poles.
But here on the Gulf Coast, the summer solstice means another few months of fun in the sun and good times in the sand. So whether you are celebrating with a bonfire, Barbeque, or by lying on your back gazing at the stars, remember to enjoy every minute of summer. Because ‘Betcha Didn’t Know’, there’s more to summer than meets the eye.