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Spring Equinox 2020: The Earliest First Day of Spring in 124 Years

Star rising over curve of the earth

When Is The First Day of Spring in 2020?

The first day of spring will occur on Thursday, March 19, 2020, at 11:50 p.m. EDT for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, which is marked by the arrival of the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.

If this seems early to you, you’re right! In fact, this is the earliest the Vernal (Spring) Equinox has occurred in 124 years.

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. And in 2020, it’s even a day earlier than that—something that hasn’t happened since 1896.

Regardless of what the weather is doing outside, the equinox marks the official start of the spring season.

How could the first day of spring change from year to year?

There are a few reasons why seasonal dates can vary from year to year. The first is that a year is not an even number of days and neither are the seasons.

Another reason is that the earth’s elliptical orbit is changing its orientation (skew), which causes the earth’s 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.

The pull of gravity from the other planets also affects the location of the earth in its orbit. The current seasonal lengths for the Northern Hemisphere are:

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.

Length of Day Vs. Night

Another complication 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 the 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.

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 after three months of lengthening days, though, we still see less light than darkness over the course of a day. 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).  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!

What’s in store for spring? Be sure to check our spring forecast here.

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If you notice a hole in the upper left-hand corner of your Farmers' Almanac, don't return it to the store! That hole isn't a defect; it's a part of history. Starting with the first edition of the Farmers' Almanac in 1818, readers used to nail holes into the corners to hang it up in their homes, barns, and outhouses (to provide both reading material and toilet paper). In 1919, the Almanac's publishers began pre-drilling holes in the corners to make it even easier for readers to keep all of that invaluable information (and paper) handy.

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