When Is The First Day of Spring in 2021?
The first day of spring will occur on Saturday, March 20, 2021, at 5:37 a.m. EDT for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, which is marked by the arrival of the vernal (spring) equinox.
Traditionally, we celebrate the first day of spring on March 21, but astronomers and calendar manufacturers alike now say that the spring season starts on March 20th, in all time zones in North America. In 2020, spring fell on March 19th, the earliest first day of spring in 124 years!
Regardless of what the weather is doing outside, the equinox marks the official start of the spring season.
What Does Vernal Equinox Mean?
Vernal translates to “new” and “fresh,” and equinox derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night).
So what does that mean? Essentially, our hours of daylight—the period of time each day between sunrise and sunset—have been growing slightly longer each day since the winter solstice in December, which is the shortest day of the year (at least in terms of light).
Even though we know that after December 21st, the days start getting steadily longer, we still see more darkness than light over the course of a day in those three months leading up to spring. The vernal equinox marks the turning point when daylight begins to win out over darkness.
At this moment, the direct rays of the Sun are shining down on the equator producing the effect of equal day and night (give or take a few minutes, see below). After the vernal equinox, the direct rays of the Sun migrate north of the Equator (with hours of daylight steadily growing longer) until they finally arrive at the Tropic of the Cancer (latitude 23.5 degrees north).
The migration of the Sun’s direct rays comes to a halt on that day; this is as far north as they will go. We call this the summer solstice (solstice is a suspension of the migration of the Sun’s direct rays). It is the longest day of the year in terms of hours of daylight.
After the summer solstice, the direct rays proceed to head south and the days begin to grow shorter. It will take another three months, until the autumnal equinox for the periods of daylight and darkness to reach equilibrium once again.
The rays ultimately reach the Tropic of Capricorn (latitude 23.5 degrees south) on the day of the winter solstice and the whole cycle begins again!
Length of Day Vs. Night
A question revolving around the vernal equinox concerns the length of day versus night. We have been taught that on the first days of spring and autumn, the day and night are equal to exactly 12 hours all over the world.
Yet, if you check the calendar pages in our Almanac, you will find that this is not so. In fact, our tables tell you that on the days of the spring and fall equinox, the length of daylight is actually longer than darkness by several minutes.
The reason this happens can be attributed to our atmosphere. If Earth was a planet that did not have an atmosphere, then yes, on the equinox days the length of the day and night would be exactly even.
However, our atmosphere acts like a lens and refracts (bends) its light above the edge of the horizon. Put in another way, when you watch the Sun either coming up above the horizon at sunrise, or going down below the horizon at sunset, you are looking at an illusion — the Sun is not really there, but already below the horizon.
As a result, we actually end up seeing the Sun for a few minutes before its disc actually rises and for a few minutes after it has actually set. Thus, thanks to atmospheric refraction, the length of daylight on any given day is increased by approximately six or seven minutes.
Why Does the First Day of Spring Change?
There are a few reasons why seasonal dates can vary from year to year. The first is…
- A year is not an even number of days and neither are the seasons.
- Earth’s elliptical orbit is changing its orientation (skew), which causes the its axis to constantly point in a different direction, called precession.
Since the seasons are defined as beginning at strict 90-degree intervals, these positional changes affect the time the earth reaches each 90-degree location in its orbit around the sun.
Second, the pull of gravity from the other planets also affects the location of Earth in its orbit.
Is Spring Getting Shorter?
The current seasonal lengths for the Northern Hemisphere are (approximately):
- Summer — 93.641 days
- Autumn — 89.834 days
- Winter — 88.994 days
- Spring — 92.771 days
As you can see, the warm seasons, spring and summer, combined are 7.584 days longer than the colder seasons, fall and winter (good news for warm weather admirers!).
However, spring is currently being reduced by approximately one minute per year and winter by about one-half a minute per year. Summer is gaining the minute lost from spring, and autumn is gaining the half a minute lost from winter.
Winter is the shortest astronomical season, and with its seasonal duration continuing to decrease, it is expected to attain its minimum value — 88.71 days — by about the year 3500.
Why The Changes?
So why, you might ask, are the “warm seasons” (spring and summer), longer than
the “cold seasons” (autumn and winter)?
It goes back to Earth’s elliptical orbit again, as mentioned above. We are 3.1 million miles closer to the Sun (called perihelion) in early January, as compared to early July, when we are farthest (called aphelion). And the closer a celestial body is to the Sun, the faster it must move in its orbit—gravity insists upon that, that’s a fundamental, natural law that was demonstrated 400 years ago by the astronomer, Johann Kepler. That means during cold months, when we are closest to the Sun, we are sweeping fastest through our orbit in space. In July, when we’re farther from the Sun, we’re moving more slowly.