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Perihelion, a start of the new year

A January morning in the Northland from 2011. (Photo by Larry Weber)

Looking back at December of 2015, we would especially note the weather. The mild temperatures for the whole month were so far above normal as to make this December one of the warmest ones ever recorded at the National Weather Service in Duluth, continuing a trend of previous months.

Other weather conditions were also of interest. Precipitation, also far above normal, was often rain, but we did receive greater than the usual amount of snowfall as well. No records were set with the warm temperatures, but they did get set with precipitation.

In this new year, we turn our attention from looking back to looking forward. January is usually our coldest and snowiest month. And as happens with every month, there is plenty more.

Each year in early January, we experience the beginning of the new year. Along with hopes, plans and resolutions, we begin another annual trip. The year, being our orbit around the sun, is actually cyclic and as such, has no beginning or ending, just a continuous travel through the seasons. We mark the passing of time by natural occurrences of sunlight and darkness (days) and moon phases (months). (Weeks are a human invention and are not based on natural cyclic events.)

We also mark the four seasons, the beginning of each one as a milestone date. The vernal and autumnal equinoxes tell us of the start of spring (about March 21) and fall (on or near Sept. 21), respectively. The solstices, summer (about June 21) and winter (on or near Dec. 21), usher us into these two seasons.

Our journey around the sun takes a bit longer than 365 days and we need to adjust our calendar by adding a day with leap year every four years. And since our route is cyclic, we could call any date as the beginning of the year. We do this in many ways. Each of us has our own New Year's Day on our birthday. We begin tilling, planting and harvesting at certain times and sports season have beginning and ending dates as well. Those of us who were involved in education considered the first day of school each year as our new year's day.

Many phenologists and other nature watchers claim that the year actually commences with the vernal equinox, the first day of spring, in March. Indeed, our calendar formerly did use March 1 as the year's starting date. (This explains why September, October, November and December are named after these respective numbers, seven, eight, nine and 10, as to which month of the year they were, even though they don't occupy those positions on the modern calendar. It also explains why February is shorter; the last month of the year had two days taken from it to be placed in other months, July and August.)

The choice of Jan. 1 as the beginning is a bit of an arbitrary date. It appears to not be based on any events going on in nature. What could be happening in the natural world at this time that might cause us to consider a new year? This is, however, a time of several natural changes. About 10 days ago we marked the winter solstice and subsequently, the days slowly began to get longer. Sunsets are now later than a month ago and Sol is now beginning to rise earlier each day. But for me, the greatest event of the starting of the new year is the perihelion.

Our route around the sun is not a perfect circle. Instead, it is an ellipse and so we are not at the same distance away at all times. The 93 million miles from Earth to the sun is an average that is approximated on the equinoxes of March and September. We reach a point most distant from the sun, aphelion, in early July (July 2-6). The time we are nearest, perihelion, is now, early January. The exact date varies from Jan. 2 to Jan. 5, but usually occurs on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th.

This year perihelion is on Jan. 2 at about 5 p.m. Even though we are closer to the source of heat at this time, we are in the midst of winter and maybe some of the coldest temperatures of the year. This perihelion paradox is due to our planet being tilted away from the sunlight. The rays are at a lower angle than we see in the summer, which is warm even though we are further away. (The southern hemisphere is hit more directly and they are in a hot summer now.)

I think that the new year starting with perihelion is very natural and a good time to begin. Beginning a cyclic journey by being near a site and then going around to that site again seems fine. Our ancestors who chose Jan. 1 as the start of the year did so with less astronomical knowledge than we have and it may be just a coincidence that this date so nearly coincides with perihelion, but marking the beginning of the journey around the sun with our closest encounter to the sun is a good place to start. Happy Perihelion and Happy New Year!

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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