A devoted soul skier for most of my life, I yearn for deep, untapped powder in the backcountry during cold, whiteout conditions that keep less enthusiastic skiers huddled at home. So I must love winter, right? I do. Unequivocally.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I forgot about my little thing with January.
Of all the months on the calendar, January is my least favorite. After the happy occasions of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, January arrives at my front door like an unwanted houseguest with bad manners — and a large suitcase in hand.
For me, the month’s 31 days pass painfully slow. Sure, the fact that January comes immediately after weeks of frenetic holiday activities doesn’t help. And instead of generous storm cycles, which make for splendid skiing, there’s usually the day-after-day-after-day inversion that corrupts the air and makes our lungs revolt.
But what makes the month really drag on for me has nothing to do with post holiday stress syndrome or crappy air. It’s the lack of sunlight. When the calendar flips to Jan. 1, my internal clock begins to pine for more than nine hours of daylight. Aren’t you tired too of feeling like it’s midnight after just pushing back from the dinner table at 7:30 p.m.?
However, January isn’t entirely about fighting off Seasonal Affective Disorder from one too many hours spent in the dark. There is a ray of hope, a spot of light at the end of the month’s long tunnel — thanks to 23.5 degrees.
Those degrees have nothing to do with Fahrenheit or Celsius on your home’s window thermometer or iPhone app. Instead, each of those degrees has everything to do with a miraculous matter of astrophysics that makes Utah’s famous snow – and gorgeous springs, summers and falls — possible. You and I first learned about it in grade school and have mostly taken it for granted ever since.
What our teachers taught us was, thanks to the work of some highly curious fellows like Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and others, the Sun — not the Earth — is the center of our solar system.
Our teachers also taught us some really big numbers. The Earth flies across the vacuum of space at about 66,000 mph and covers around 580 million miles during its 365.25-day elliptical orbit around the sun. Also, the Earth averages about 93 million miles away from the Sun during its orbit. And despite the Sun’s enormous mass and power, and light’s exhilarating velocity of 186,000 miles per second, it still takes about eight minutes for sunlight to reach Earth’s surface.
Such astrophysical facts are not only breathtaking and perplexing to ponder, they’re essential for life. Without sunlight, and just the right distance between the Earth and the Sun, life here—from the smallest microorganism to the Blue Whale, including us—likely wouldn’t exist. But the miraculous combination of sunlight and distance are only part of the story. And this is where my thankfulness for 23.5 degrees comes in.
Those degrees are the amount Earth’s vertical axis tilts from perpendicular, or from straight up and down. Astronomers refer to them as the obliquity of the ecliptic. But for you and me, they simply give us the four seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall.
Without Earth’s axis tilted 23.5 degrees, the northern hemisphere, in which Tooele County resides, wouldn’t get that extra shot of overhead sunlight between March and September. We also wouldn’t get those long spring and summer days.
For example, on Summer Solstice, which usually occurs on June 21 and is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, sunrise in Tooele County is typically around 6 a.m. and sunset is at about 9 p.m. The Sun is visible for more than 15 hours, and that doesn’t include the hour or more of twilight before sunrise and after sunset.
If the Earth’s axis was vertical instead of tilted, water and landmasses that lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, would receive the lion’s share of direct sunlight every day of the year.
There would be no summer or winter solstices, nor vernal or autumnal equinoxes on the calendar. Sunrise and sunset in Tooele County would always be around the same time, and each day would be approximately 12 hours long.
But thankfully, the miracle of 23.5 degrees and the Earth’s specific orbit around the Sun, work cooperatively to create the seasons — and give us more and longer heat-generating daylight during spring and summer. Although we’re less than a month on the backside of the Dec. 21 Winter Solstice, I know the Earth is hurtling at 66,000 mph toward Summer Solstice in June.
From now until then, each day is getting longer, at first by only seconds, and then by a minute or two. In fact, right now we already have 10 more minutes of sunlight since Winter Solstice.
January is still my least favorite month. The days are too short, snowstorms are too infrequent, and the smog can make things downright grim. But I can see that ray of hope, that spot of light at the end of the month’s long, dark tunnel.
And its origin is the sun inching higher above the noon horizon with each passing day.