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There are two equinoxes every year – in March and September –

when the Sun shines directly on the equator and the length of night and day are nearly equal.

 

March Equinox -

Equal Day and Night, Nearly

 

The Sun Crosses the Equator

The March equinox marks the moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator – from south to north. This happens on March 19, 20 or 21 every year.

Spring in the North, Fall in the South

Equinox and solstice.

Equinoxes and solstices are opposite on either side of the equator, and the March equinox is also known as the "spring (vernal) equinox" in the northern hemisphere and as the "autumnal (fall) equinox" in the southern hemisphere.

Why is it Called “Equinox”?

On the equinox, night and day are nearly exactly the same length – 12 hours – all over the world. This is the reason it's called an “equinox”, derived from Latin, meaning "equal night". However, in reality equinoxes don't have exactly 12 hours of daylight. In reality equinoxes don't have exactly 12 hours of daylight

Latitude Determines Day Length

Even if day and night aren’t exactly equal on the day of the equinox, there are days when day and night are both very close to 12 hours.

Approx date of "Equal Day & Night"

Latitude         March    September

60° North        Mar 18    Sep 25

55° North        Mar 17    Sep 25

50° North        Mar 17    Sep 25

45° North        Mar 17    Sep 25

40° North        Mar 17    Sep 26

35° North        Mar 16    Sep 26

30° North        Mar 16    Sep 27

25° North        Mar 15    Sep 27

20° North        Mar 14    Sep 28

15° North         Mar 12    Sep 30

10° North         Mar 8    Oct 4

5° North          Feb 24   Oct 17

 Equator     No equal day and night

5° South          Apr 14    Aug 29

10° South         Apr 1      Sep 10

15° South         Mar 2    Sep 14

20° South        Mar 26   Sep 16

25° South        Mar 25   Sep 17

30° South        Mar 24   Sep 18

35° South        Mar 24   Sep 19

40° South        Mar 23   Sep 19

45° South        Mar 23   Sep 19

50° South        Mar 23   Sep 20

55° South        Mar 23   Sep 20

60° South        Mar 22   Sep 20

However, this date depends on the latitude, and can vary by as much as several weeks from place to place. The table shows approximate dates for when day and night are as similar as possible according to latitude.

More Than 12 Hours' Day

On the equator, the day and night stay approximately the same length all year round, but the day will always appear a little longer than 12 hours, due to the reasons below.

On the equinoxes, the geometric center of the sun is above the horizon for 12 hours, and you might think that the length of the day (hours of daylight) would be 12 hours too.

However, ‘sunrise’ is defined as the moment the upper edge of the sun's disk becomes visible above the horizon – not when the center of the sun is visible. In the same sense, ‘sunset’ refers to the moment the Sun's upper edge, not the center, disappears below the horizon. The time it takes for the sun to fully rise and set, which is several minutes, is added to the day and subtracted fromt he night, and therefore the equinox day lasts a little longer than 12 hours.

Refraction: Light Lingers

Another reason why the day is longer than 12 hours on an equinox is that the Earth's atmosphere refracts, sunlight.

This refraction, or bending of the light, causes the Sun’s upper edge to be visible from Earth several minutes before the edge actually reaches the horizon. The same thing happens at sunset, when you can see the sun for several minutes after it has actually dipped under the horizon. This causes every day on Earth – including the days of the equinoxes – to be at least 6 minutes longer than it would have been without this refraction.

The extent of refraction depends on atmospheric pressure and temperature. Our calculations in the Sunrise and Sunset Calculator assumes the standard atmospheric pressure of 101.325 kilopascal and temperature of 15°C or 59°F.

What Happens on the Equinox?

The Earth's axis is always tilted at an angle of about 23.5° in relation to the ecliptic, the imaginary plane created by the Earth's path around the Sun. On any other day of the year, either the southern hemisphere or the northern hemisphere tilts a litte towards the Sun. But on the two equinoxes, the tilt of the Earth's axis is perpendicular to the Sun's rays, like the illustration shows.

Celebrating new Beginnings

The March equinox has long been celebrated as a time of rebirth in the Northern Hemisphere. Many cultures celebrate spring festivals and holidays around the March equinox, like Easter and Passover.

Customs and holidays around the September equinox

The September equinox coincides with many cultural events, religious observances and customs. It's also called the "autumnal (fall) equinox" in the northern hemisphere and the "spring equinox" in the Southern Hemisphere.

Christianity

The Christian church replaced many early Pagan equinox celebrations with Christianized observances. For example, Michaelmas (also known as the Feast of Michael and All Angels), on September 29, fell near the September equinox.

Ancient Greece

In many cultures, the September equinox is a sign of fall (autumn) in the northern hemisphere. In Greek mythology fall is associated with when the goddess Persephone returns to the underworld to be with her husband Hades. It was supposedly a good time to enact rituals for protection and security as well as reflect on successes or failures from the previous months.

Australia

Aboriginal Australians have, for a long time, had a good knowledge of astronomy and the seasons. Events like the September equinox, which is during the spring in Australia, played a major role in oral traditions in Indigenous Australian culture.

China

In China the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, is celebrated around the time of the September equinox. It celebrates the abundance of the summer's harvest and one of the main foods is the mooncake filled with lotus, sesame seeds, a duck egg or dried fruit.

Japan

Higan, or Higan-e, is a week of Buddhist services observed in Japan during both the September and March equinoxes. Both equinoxes have been national holidays since the Meiji period (1868-1912). Higan means the “other shore” and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana. It is a time to remember the dead by visiting, cleaning and decorating their graves.

 

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