Understanding Winter

Jan 7, 2016

It may be dark outside with falling snowflakes of theatrical proportions, and tiny patches of fog escaping from our mouths, but after the Winter Solstice, there comes a gentle wake of increasing daylight. Even with the promise of more daylight, however, the warmth of spring is still a long way off.  January and February can feel equally, if not more, bleak than the days when light is decreasing. Part of the lingering sense of winter and darkness after the Winter solstice is caused by the angle of the sun to our position on Earth. This map shows the different angles of the sun, length of day, night, and zeniths of any day in the year. Playing with the map a little bit, it becomes apparent how geography affects our perception of day’s increasing and decreasing light.

Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Another physical phenomenon of the brumal season, on a global scale, is the fluctuation of seasons throughout the year. NASA keeps a record of photos of Earth, and a couple of years ago designer John Nelson used these photographs to produce “This Pulsing Earth”, featured on Radiolab’s Blogland. This beautiful perspective of Earth’s changing seasons could cheer up any person with the winter blues.

On a more human scale, close to the crust, depending on where you are in the world, your winter months can vary between temperate and wet, to freezing and dry. Regardless of your position, seasonal changes affect your genes.
In May 2015, a publication in Nature determined that 4,000 of our genes’ expressions change with the seasons. NPR’s All Things Considered ran this story when the publication came out. This has profound implications for health care and management of diseases affected by changing seasons.

In a more historical tangent to the Solstice, another ‘henge’ discovery was revealed in September 2015. This sheds light (pardon the pun), on an ancient ‘Superhenge’ that is a contemporary or predecessor of the famous stone monument Stonehenge. As NPR reports, the purpose of this newly located ‘Superhenge’ is as mysterious as its  more famous neighbor, but it is commonly believed to be a massive calendar or Solstice meeting place for ancient peoples. The ancient Pagan tradition, also known as the Yule, centered on the Winter Solstice and is the basis for modern celebrations of Christmas. This came from their reverence and possible worship of the sun, which was considered the wheel that turned the seasons.

On December 25th, another astronomical specialty occurred: the first Yuletide Moon in four decades-the last was in 1977. If you’re a fan of the Retro Cocktail Hour that features music from the era of the last Yuletide Moon, you could try this Yuletide Moon drink in celebration of this rare celestial event.

To conclude: make this winter a special one, and learn more about our world in the year ahead with Northwest Public Radio. Happy 2016!