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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Halloween in the tropics - an astronomical event

Next week is Halloween. This festival is normally associated with death and spook things but it also has an astronomical significance, just like alot of other seasonal holidays.

Halloween occurs on 31st October every year, which is in the middle of the season of Autumn or Fall in the Northern temperate regions of the Earth. During this time the leaves on many trees (so called "deciduous trees") start to turn brown and fall to the ground, in preparation for the approaching winter months.
I'd imagine that the disappearance of alot of the summer flora and fauna was one of the key influences for the "death" theme of Halloween, as at this time life simply seems to fade away, to be replaced by a cold, barren, frozen landscape.
A typical British street during winter - with leafless trees and frost or snow covering the ground.

These changes are mainly triggered by a reduction in the amount of sunlight, resulting in a lose of chlorophyll (the green stuff responsible for photosynthesis) in leaves.

Basically Halloween signifies the middle point between the Autumnal Equinox (22nd Sept - where night and day are equal in length) and the Northern Winter Solstice (21st Dec - the shortest daylight hours of the year).

Although we don't experience the same seasons here in tropical Singapore, there are a few  astronomical clues that can be observed around Halloween:

1) Early Sunrise/Sunset
If like me you wake up for work around 6:30am-6:45am, you may have noticed recently that the sky is already bright compared to a few months ago when at the same time it was still dark.
This is because on the day after Halloween (1st Nov) Singapore (and other tropical areas) experiences its earliest sunrise for the whole year. Sunrise on this day occurs at 6:46am compared to the latest sunrise of 7:17am on 10th Feb (incidentally close to Valentine's Day and Chinese New Year).
In the tropics, early sunrise also means early sunset. So if you get home around 7pm, over this next week, it should be almost dark as sunset on 1st Nov (and Halloween) is at 6:50pm.
All this is a result of the orientation of Earth's tilt relative to the Sun at this time of year.

9am Morning Sun during June  - Sun located towards North-east (on the left).
9am Morning Sun in October - Sun is slightly higher and more towards the South (right) than earlier in the year.

2) Southern Sun
During Equinox (22nd Sept) the Sun is directly level with the equator, which from Singapore, results in the Sun rising due East and setting due West, with the midday Sun directly overhead.
On December 21st (solstice) the Sun rises from its most southern point in the sky. Around Halloween the Sun will be halfway between these two positions. So the daytime sunlight will come from a slightly southern direction. Bad news for those with south-facing windows, as for the next few months you can expect more and more sunlight on that side of your house.

This effect can also be seen in the orientation of shadows on ground.
Back in June (close to northern solstice) the Sun was at its northern most point so shadows appear to point south.
12:30pm - Midday shadows in June (solstice) - shadow are long and point south (left).

During Equinox, shadows pointed more or less east and west as well as directly below our feet.
12:30pm - Midday shadows in September (Equinox)  -  shadows are short, gradually pointing west and east in the morning and afternoon.
Lunchtime shadows in September (Equinox) are directly  below our feet

Around Halloween shadows now point slightly north (i.e. opposite the Sun).
12pm - Midday Shadows in October (close to Halloween) - shadows point slight North (towards the right)
Of course Halloween has alot of other cultural and religious influences, but its timing is primarily astronomical in basis and represents one of the four so called "cross-quarter dates" that occur between solstice and equinox.

Being an astronomer in Singapore has its uses, sometimes to share these little tidbits of information with others whilst walking out for lunch, to pause for a few seconds in order to look around and observe the small occurrences of the Earth's daily wanderings through space before we ourselves resume going about our own daily life.

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