Northland Nature: The new year should start with the perihelionMany nature watchers claim that the year actually commences with the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, in March. Indeed, our calendar formerly did use March 1 as the year’s starting point.
Each year in early January, we experience the beginning of the new year. Along with hopes, plans and resolutions, we begin another annual trip. The year, which parallels our orbit around the sun, is actually cyclic and, as such, has no beginning or ending — just a continuous travel through the seasons.
We mark the passing of time by natural occurrences of sunlight and darkness (days) and moon phases (months). (Weeks are a human invention, and its length is not based on natural cyclic events.)
Our journey around the sun takes a bit longer than 365 days, so we need to adjust our calendar with leap year every four years. And, since our path is cyclic, we could call any date the beginning of the year.
We do this in many ways. Each of us has our own New Year’s Day on our birthday. We begin tilling, planting and harvesting at certain times — and sports seasons have beginning and ending dates as well. Those of us who have been involved in education have considered the first day of school as our New Year’s Day.
Many nature watchers claim that the year actually commences with the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, in March. Indeed, our calendar formerly did use March 1 as the year’s starting point. (This explains why September, October, November and December are named after these respective numbers: seven, eight, nine and 10, as to which month of the year they were — even though they don’t occupy those positions on the modern calendar. It also explains why February is shorter: The last month of the year had two days taken from it to be placed in other months, July and August.)
The choice of Jan. 1 as the beginning is a bit arbitrary and appears to not be based on any events going on in nature. What could be happening in the natural world at this time that might cause us to consider a new year?
But it is, indeed, a time of several natural changes. About 10 days ago, we marked the winter solstice and, subsequently, the days slowly began to get longer. Sunsets are now later than they were a month ago, and the sun is rising earlier too.
For me, however, the greatest event of the new year is the perihelion.
Our route around the sun is not a perfect circle. Instead, it is an ellipse, which means we are not at the same distance at all times.
The 93 million miles is an average that is approximated on the equinoxes of March and September. We reach a point most distant from the sun (aphelion) in early July and the time we are nearest (perihelion) is now, early January.
The exact date of perihelion varies from Jan. 1 to Jan. 5, but usually occurs sometime between those dates. This year perihelion is on Jan. 3.
Even though we are closer to the source of heat at this time, we are in the midst of winter and potentially experiencing some of the coldest temperatures of the whole year. This perihelion paradox is a result of our planet being tilted away from the sunlight: The rays are at a lower angle. (The southern hemisphere is hit more directly and they are in a hot summer now.) I think that the new year starting with perihelion is very natural and a good time to begin.
Our ancestors who chose Jan. 1 as the start did so with less astronomical knowledge than we have, and it may be just a coincidence that it coincides with perihelion, but marking the beginning of a journey with our closest encounter is a good place to begin.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books that are available now, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.”