Celebrating the summer solstice with Black history

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 6/21/2013, 4:19 p.m.
June 21 is the summer solstice. This major celestial event marks the first, official day...
Celebrating the summer solstice with Black history

June 21 is the summer solstice. This major celestial event marks the first, official day of summer. But just what does all of that really mean beside the end of school and the start of vacation time?

The Farmer's Almanac states that "the word solstice comes from the Latin words for 'sun' and 'to stop,' due to the fact that the sun appears to stop in the sky."

The solstices--summer and winter--are caused by the relationship of our Earth to the sun. As the days get longer, the sun rises higher and higher in the sky. During the summer solstice, the sun is at its peak, with its rays striking our Northern Hemisphere directly. On this day, we experience the longest day and the shortest night of the year.

Subsequently, the Southern Hemisphere has its longest day and shortest night in December. After the summer solstice, our days will gradually get shorter and shorter, leading to winter. The sign of Cancer (the crab) is associated with the summer solstice because the crab walks backwards, symbolizing the shorter days to come.

This is all due to the way our planet rotates around the sun on its tilted axis, an imaginary line that runs through its center. You can see this by using a globe. It is because of this rotation that we get the solstices and equinoxes. During the equinoxes--spring and fall--the sun sits directly overhead at high noon on the equator, making day and night the same length of time.

The sun appears to move north for six months of the year and south for the other six months. When it reaches its highest northern point (June 21) and its lowest southern point (Dec. 22), we have our solstices.

Why isn't the longest day of the year also the hottest day of the year? Even though our Earth is absorbing the sun's rays, it takes a few weeks to release it. This happens during July and August. That's when our ocean waters are the warmest.

To better understand how the solstices work, we must first look at the imaginary lines through the Earth. We mentioned the axis or tilt on which the earth slowly spins. This line goes completely through the Earth and through the North and South poles. The Earth rotates at a 23.5 degree angle in its journey around the sun. This tilt is the reason that we have our four seasons.

Another important marker is the equator, a line that runs around the center of the Earth at 0 degrees. Other lines parallel to the equator are called lines of latitude. These number from 0 (the equator) to 90 degrees. Two important lines of latitude are the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere and the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere. The sun is directly over these lines at 23.5 degrees twice a year, resulting in the summer and winter solstices.

We humans have been in awe of the power of the sun since the beginning of time. Ancient and modern civilizations have long celebrated its power, which is at its peak during the summer solstice.