Monday, June 01, 2015

Happy winter

Today is the first day of winter. I know other countries, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, like to say that winter starts on the solstice, but we’re a bit more practical, a little less tradition bound, in New Zealand and Australia.

I looked it up, as I do, and found that I haven’t talked about this at the start of winter before, mentioning it in passing only at the start of summer. This probably just goes to show how much more I like summer than winter. But in all these years, I’ve never really talked about why, precisely, we observe the start of seasons on the first of the relevant month.

In talking about this, Time and Date, my go-to site for all sorts of date-related things (like calculating how old a candidate for US president will be on Inauguration Day), said this:
In the Southern Hemisphere, where the June solstice is known as the shortest day of the year, it marks the first day of astronomical winter, but the middle of winter in meteorological terms.
In a nutshell, that’s the reason: By the time the Solstice arrives (summer or winter), the actual season has already begun. In my most recent podcast episode, I talked a bit about how the weather had turned “winterish;” in fact, the weather has been pretty much like it is for most of Auckland’s winter (apart from July, which is often the coldest month). So, waiting another three weeks to say winter has begun is just silly.

And that gets to the second reason: Predictability. Because our calendars aren’t accurate, the June Solstice arrives at different times and dates in different years. This year, the June Solstice will arrive in New Zealand on Monday, 22 June 2015 at 4:39am NZST (Sunday, 21 June 2015 at 16:39 UTC). Next year, it will arrive on June 20, though it won’t be on June 22 until 2203 (the last time was 1971).

So, picking June 1 for the start of winter is more accurate meteorologically and is consistent year to year. Both dates are arbitrary, but we choose one that’s best, and that doesn’t carry the quasi-religious mumbo jumbo often associated with a solstice in particular.

We also refer, as I have in this post, the June Solstice because—duh!—this is winter, not summer, in the Southern Hemisphere. Similarly, we refer to the December Solstice, the March Equinox and the September Equinox. In fact, most academic discussion of these events uses the same terminology to avoid the confusion of geographically exclusive terms.

Popular culture on the other hand, often uses Northern Hemisphere seasons when talking about the solstices and equinoxes. That figures: Most of earth’s population, and all its most powerful media corporations, are in the Northern Hemisphere. When such things are intended only for consumption in the North, this could be excusable, but most items of pop culture are global nowadays, and using Northern Hemisphere terminology is as confusing to us as it would be for the North if we reversed it.

Using the month of the event, rather than a season, avoids confusion and misunderstanding, which is why academics do it, and it’s why media companies ought to, as well.

But the larger issue here isn’t what a solstice or equinox is called, because both are mostly about tradition, rather than anything relevant to ordinary people and their lives. Instead, this is about choosing how we mark the change of one season to another. If we’re going to pick an arbitrary date, why not choose one that’s more accurate and consistent?

We do. Today, June 1, is the first day of winter. Clearly, I’m not happy about it.

The image at top of the seasons from a southern perspective, and is by Tau Ľolunga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

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