By Coggin Heeringa, Program Director/Naturalist, Crossroads at Big Creek
In other years … more normal years … Crossroads at Big Creek has celebrated the Winter Solstice (December 21) with a bonfire at our Council Ring. And we will do so again in future years. Last year, standing outside the circle, I enjoyed listening to the visitors, though in the dark, I could not tell who was doing the talking.
While I, like the ancients, celebrate the Solstice as the day after which the nights will get progressively shorter, one visitor claimed he was celebrating the upcoming ski season. (No doubt many of Crossroads’ visitors share his enthusiasm for winter sports. And yes, we will groom the trails as soon as we have adequate snow.)
I overheard another visitor explaining to a child that the Earth was as far away from the Sun as it was going to get. That is just not true. In winter, the Sun is about 91½ million miles from Earth; in summer, the distance between Earth and Sun is 93½ million miles. So why isn’t winter the warm season?
First, in winter, the days are short and nights are long. Consequently, there are few hours of sunlight to heat the Earth. Also, as you have probably noticed, the Sun appears lower in the sky during winter. The solar rays, therefore, are not as concentrated.
I demonstrate this to school groups with a flashlight. First, I shine the light on the floor from directly above. This simulates summer when the sun is almost directly overhead at noon. The light is concentrated, and it is very bright. Next, I shine the light at a low angle representing the winter when the Sun is low in the sky. This light shines across a greater area, but it is much less intense.
Additionally, when the Sun shines from low on the horizon, the solar energy must pass through far more miles of Earth’s atmosphere than when the rays beat down from directly overhead. In fact, a significant amount of the already less potent heat and light are absorbed by the extra thickness of atmosphere.
These factors are due to the tilt of the Earth. At this time of year, the Northern Hemisphere is slanted away from the Sun. One might think that once the days get longer, winter would ease up. Wrong! because of a phenomenon known as “the lag of the season.”
The Earth is able to retain a great deal on heat. This heat, absorbed during summer, is stored in rocks, in the lakes, and in the soil. It takes several months for the residual heat to be lost. Therefore, typically, February is the coldest month.
Various news outlets are announcing that on the night of the Solstice we will be able to see the Christmas Star. This is, at the very least, overhype. But that night, a special celestial event will occur—the closest visible conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 800 years.
To put it simply, on December 21, two planets that are actually 400 million miles apart will be aligned in such a way that, to the naked eye, they should look like one exceptionally bright star. Probably. Even that is speculation because the last time they were so closely aligned was during the Middle Ages, back in 1226, just a decade after the Magna Carta (the document that said the King was not above the Law and that lands below the ordinary high water mark are held in common and belong to the people) was issued in England.
Through a telescope, the two distinct planets, and maybe their moons, should be visible. If it is clear, the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society hopes to broadcast images from the Leif Everson Observatory on YouTube Live and the Night Skies Network. See the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society Facebook page for the links.
If the weather is clear and relatively mild, the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society may offer viewing experiences. Check the Crossroads at Big Creek and Door Peninsula Astronomical Society Facebook pages for announcements.
Oh, that Christmas Star? Could be just the time of year. But religious scholars and astronomers have been debating the Star of Bethlehem for centuries, and indeed, many do think it may have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Or maybe Jupiter, Saturn and Venus. Or a comet. Or a large meteor. Or perhaps nova (an explosion from the surface of a white-dwarf star). Or a supernova (a violent star-destroying explosion).
Some think the Star of Bethlehem was a myth. Others believe it was a miracle. So, is the so-called Christmas Star an omen for a better year to come? One can only hope.
NOTE: In response to the current health emergency, Crossroads is doing our part to stop community spread by offering only virtual programs or individualized outdoor experiences. Until further notice, the buildings at Crossroads at Big Creek are closed, but the restrooms and trails are open every day, all day. We encourage the community to use our preserves, as always, free of charge, for recreation, for learning and for the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor exercise. Please put on masks when approaching others.
Crossroads at Big Creek Learning Center and Nature Preserve is located at 2041 Michigan Street, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Crossroads is a 501(c)3 organization committed to offering education, conducting research and providing outdoor experiences to inspire environmental stewardship in learners of all ages. We welcome your support! Become a member of Crossroads by mailing your support to P.O. Box 608, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235, or donate online at www.crossroadsatbigcreek.org.