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A Russian neo-pagan supreme priest, right, beats a tambourine while his followers dance around a bonfire to celebrate the summer solstice in Maloyaroslavets, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) south-west from Moscow, Russia.

A Russian neo-pagan supreme priest, right, beats a tambourine while his followers dance around a bonfire to celebrate the summer solstice.

Photograph by Sergey Ponomarev, AP Photo

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published June 20, 2013

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo Summer officially begins this week as the summer solstice marks the longest day of the year. For Americans, summer will begin either on Thursday or Friday—depending on which time zone you live in.

That's because the timing of the summer solstice depends on when the sun reaches its farthest point north of the Equator, and that varies from year to year.

This year's summer solstice falls on Friday, June 21, at 1:04 a.m. ET, but it will start on Thursday night for places in North America west of the Central Time Zone.

(See "Pictures: Summer Solstice Marked With Fire, Magic.")

This year's summer solstice also stands out because it will be followed shortly after by the largest "supermoon" of the year. In the early hours of Sunday, June 23, the moon will officially reach its full phase and will be the closest to Earth that it will be all year.

While the astrology-minded might be tempted to see significance in the timing of the two celestial events, there is no connection, said Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

"People draw this connection between [the supermoon] and the summer solstice, but it's completely coincidental," he added.

Highest Sun at High Noon

The solstices are the results of Earth's north-south axis being tilted 23.4 degrees relative to the ecliptic, the plane of our solar system. This tilt causes different amounts of sunlight to reach different regions of the planet during Earth's yearlong orbit around the sun.

On the summer solstice this year, the North Pole is tipped more toward the sun than on any other day of 2013. (The opposite holds true for the Southern Hemisphere, where today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.)

As a result of Earth's tilt, the path of the sun across the sky rises in the lead-up to the summer solstice, then begins descending for the rest of the summer.

(See pictures of the sun's path across the sky—an entire year in a single frame.)

At high noon on the summer solstice, the sun appears at its highest point in the sky—its most directly overhead position—in the Northern Hemisphere.

That doesn't mean the sun will be exactly overhead at noon for everyone, though. In fact, the sun will shine down directly overhead at noon only along the Tropic of Cancer, an imaginary line that circles the planet at about the latitude of Cuba.

For every degree of latitude north of the Tropic of Cancer, the sun will appear to be at a corresponding degree south of the zenith, or highest point in the sky.

"So here in Chicago, we're at about 42 degrees north latitude, so that's 18.5 degrees north of [the Tropic of Cancer]. So the sun at its highest will be 18.5 degrees off zenith," Hammergren explained.

Solstice Is Longest Day of the Year—Not Hottest

On the summer solstice, the Northern Hemisphere receives more sunlight than on any other day of the year—but that doesn't mean the first day of summer is also the hottest.

(Related story: "In Scandinavia, Solstice Means Fun in the Midnight Sun.")

Earth's oceans and atmosphere act like heat sinks, absorbing and reradiating the sun's rays over time. Even though the planet is absorbing a lot of sunlight on the summer solstice, it takes several weeks to release it. As a result, the hottest days of summer usually occur in July or August.

"If you think about turning up an oven, it takes it a long time to heat up," explained Robert Howell, an astronomer at the University of Wyoming. "And after you turn it off, it takes awhile for it to cool down. It's the same with the Earth."

Another popular misconception, Adler's Hammergren said, is that during the summer—and especially during the summer solstice—Earth is closer to the sun than at other times of the year.

In reality, the tilt of the Earth has more influence on the seasons than does our planet's distance to the sun.

"During the Northern Hemisphere summer, we're actually farthest from the sun," Hammergren said.

First Day of Summer Sparked Ancient Celebrations

The summer solstice—also called midsummer—has long been recognized and often celebrated by many cultures around the world.

The ancient Egyptians, for example, built the Great Pyramids so that the sun, when viewed from the Sphinx, sets precisely between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice.

The Inca of South America celebrated the corresponding winter solstice with a ceremony called Inti Raymi, which included food offerings and sacrifices of animals, and maybe even people.

Recently, archaeologists discovered the remains of an astronomical observatory in a long-buried Maya city in Guatemala in which the buildings were designed to align with the sun during the solstices. During such times, the city's populace gathered at the observatory to watch as their king appeared to command the heavens.

And perhaps most famously, Stonehenge in the United Kingdom has been associated with the winter and summer solstices for about 5,000 years.

Observers in the center of the standing stones can still watch the summer solstice sunrise over the Heel Stone, which stands just outside the main ring of Stonehenge. (Read about pagans' campaign to enter Stonehenge on the summer solstice and other sacred days.)

Last year modern-day Druids gathered at Stonehenge to celebrate the solstice for the first time as members of an officially recognized religion in the U.K., following a controversial vote by the national Charity Commission for England and Wales in the fall of 2011.

(Related: "First 'Skyscraper' Built to Fight Solstice Shadow?")

Summer Solstice Not What It Used to Be

For many of the ancients, the summer solstice wasn't just an excuse to party or pray—it was essential to their well-being.

Associated with agriculture, the summer solstice was a reminder that a turning point in the growing season had been reached.

"The calendar was very important—much more important than it is now," said Ricky Patterson, an astronomer at the University of Virginia. "People wanted to know what was going to happen, so that they could be ready."

But for many modern cultures—and Americans in particular—the solstices and equinoxes no longer attract the same kind of attention they once did.

"The only people who really pay attention to what's going on outside on a regular basis are the neo-pagans in America and farmers, because it's important for their growing and harvest seasons," said Jarita Holbrook, a cultural astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"But we're pretty much an indoor culture at this point ... so we have less of a connection to the sky."

Adler's Hammergren said he doesn't feel too bad about the declining significance of the solstices in modern society.

"Ancient cultures and some modern religions pay very, very close attention to certain natural alignments ... and there's a lot of mysticism and special supernatural significance attached to them," he said. "The fact that we don't pay attention to that stuff as much anymore, I think, is a rational thing."

The University of Arizona's Holbrook, however, thinks there are certain benefits in keeping the tradition alive.

"Paying attention to the solstices is a way of teaching mathematics, celestial mechanics, and astronomy, culture, and history," she said. "It is also a pretty good party."

47 comments
Teri Springer
Teri Springer

First Day of Summer Sparked Ancient Celebrations

"The summer solstice—also called midsummer—has long been recognized and often celebrated by many cultures around the world."

You contradict yourself. First you say it's the first day of summer. Then in the very next sentence you actually get it right and call it mid-summer. 

The solstice is NOT the first day of summer....it's MID-summer. Making May 1 the first day of summer and August 1 the first day of autumn......

Asch Rikonoseya
Asch Rikonoseya

NatGeo, you better check with that group to make sure they are Neo Pagan. That can be taken with extreme offense to some of us in the Pagan culture.


~High Priestess Asch~

Chris Dunn
Chris Dunn

Two thoughts: 

If reason is the cause of a substantive detachment from the sky and the processes of nature, as Holbrook implies in this article, then perhaps reason ought to be abandoned. Though I'm not sure he is correct in this assertion.

"People draw this connection between [the supermoon] and the summer solstice, but it's completely coincidental" - how can he possibly know this? This is just as mystical and equally likely a statement as the claim that there is a connection.



Mahir Barut
Mahir Barut

I read wishing  It would recount its historic background , to my disappointment

Caitlyn Johnston
Caitlyn Johnston

Summer solstice is NOT the beginning of summer - it's MID summer!!! Jeez.. Even Shakespeare knew that!!

Rachael Patton
Rachael Patton

I get that this isn't the point, but I'm pretty sure thats a bodhran, not a tambourine that the priest is playing in the photograph. 

Bridget Cameron
Bridget Cameron

It is also the Winter Solstice, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere.

Michael Barnes
Michael Barnes

This article dos not seem to fulfil the promise of its title.  There is nothing in it that explains "Why It's the First Day of Summer".  I feel I've been conned.

Gerald Kelleher
Gerald Kelleher

The solstice,in 21st century terms,is when the North/South poles are at their greatest distance from the circle of illumination .The best way to think of the solstice is through conditions at the North/South poles and the polar day/night cycle,at the North pole it is orbital noon while at the South pole it is orbital midnight.

The problem is that astronomers are too vague when it comes to describing the seasons as 'tilt',they normally show a vague representation of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun and then walk away.The real reason we have the solstice is much more interesting and enjoyable for students and interested adults and involves following a sequence of images .

The distant Uranus has a unique axial orientation which remains fixed to an external star just as our planet's orientation remains fixed to the North star-

http://coolcosmos.ipac.caltech.edu/cosmic_kids/AskKids/images/uranus_tilt.jpg

Up close and personal it looks like this -

http://www.daviddarling.info/images/Uranus_rings_changes.jpg

The same thing happens with the Earth as the North/South poles are carried around in a circle to the central Sun but the old idea of 'axial precession' is getting in the way of appreciating this planetary feature for the Earth does the same thing as Uranus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Earth_precession.svg

Again,21st century imaging gets rid of the old awkward idea of the Earth 'tilting' towards and away from the Sun and replaces it with a more challenging and enjoyable solution.




Andy Barkwith
Andy Barkwith

In the UK,

Meteorological Summer - 1st June to 31st August

Astronomical Summer - ~21st June to ~20th September

Phenological Summer - Changes every year, depending on weather

Damian Evans
Damian Evans

In the UK the meteorological summer begins on the 1st June. British Summer Time (BST) starts on the last Sunday in March. I can never see why summer would start on the longest day.

Stuart Wolfe
Stuart Wolfe

May the 1st is the start of summer in the UK, the Solstice is celebrated on the rising of the mid-summer sun. Which is today, the 21st of June. Hope that helps :D

David Mottram
David Mottram

"First Day of Summer Sparked Ancient Celebrations"

Not much in the way of historical evidence for this at all, I'm afraid.

There are a number of architectural alignments to the position of the setting or rising sun in winter or summer but, as far as I know, none of them are sufficiently accurate to determine its precise date.

The whole point about the name "solstice" is that the sun "stands still". Its rising or setting position does not change appreciably from day to day. Even the relatively sophisticated  Egyptians and Romans did not get it quite right which is why their calendars were out.

Most earlier civilisations based their calendars on the phases of the moon.

Patricia Shayler
Patricia Shayler

I love learning more about #Guatemala and your articles are excellent! I live in England now and the summer Solstice celebrations are amazing. I will never take for granted summer again since Guatemala is "The Country of Eternal Spring" :)

ray boyd
ray boyd

If there must be Mysticism .. I think I prefer The Pagan view of universe unity .. at least superficially .. and for as long as it is tied to science .. and education ...I'm sure observations of our interaction with the sun had absolute  relevance  during past weather extremes on the fragile edge of existence .. still have ..

Hank Case
Hank Case

Little note. I think this is a typo?

"Today the North Pole is tipped more toward the sun than on any other day of 2012."

That should be 2013?

Ski King
Ski King

May 1st? Really, Good Grief, June 21st is the 1st day of summer, just like NG says

Isabelle Herbert
Isabelle Herbert

Well it's my birthday. My mother said it was definitely the longest day of the year..!

Korben Dallas
Korben Dallas

Firstly, summer "officially" begins on June 1st.

Secondly, if you want to tie the beginning of summer to astronomical phenomena, you are free to do so, of course. However, by any meaningful logic Summer Solstice is the exact _midpoint_ of astronomical summer, not the beginning of it. The beginning of astronomical summer coincides with the midpoint between Summer Solstice and Spring Equinox.

Taking the above into account, there's no meaningful rationale behind assigning the beginning of summer to Summer Solstice. You are free to do so of course, but your attempts to put a scientific foundation under it are laughable. There can't be any.

Alf Lacis
Alf Lacis

Different countries select the start of a season different ways.

Some countries use the solstices and equinoxes.

Australia uses the 1st of the month for that, i.e.:
1st June -> Winter
1st Sep -> Spring
1st Dec -> Summer
1st March -> Autumn (Australia does not have a 'Fall', since 99.9 percent of our tress are evergreen and the leaves do not 'fall' !  <- factoid for quiz shows)

Victoria Luke's reply suggested that it is 1st May, which (a) shows she is in the Souther Hemisphere and (b) BUT that she's not in Australia, but a country where they start even a month earlier.

I expected Wikipedia to have a list, but the closest they've got is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasons#.22Official.22_designations which discusses it, but offers no list.

Googling "solstice equinox season start dates summer autumn winter spring list world" is not presenting me with a list anywhere that I can see.

Has anyone got a list of these start dates?

Victoria Luke
Victoria Luke

The summer solstice is *not* the first day of summer. It's *midsummer*. The first day of summer is May 1st.

Charles Ranier
Charles Ranier

finally got a good answer why the solstice isn't also the hottest day of the year. I've always wondered why July and August were hotter. Thank you!

Gerald Kelleher
Gerald Kelleher

@Bridget Cameron 


Hi Bridget. 

This is why it should  rightly be called the June Solstice but as they are stuck with the old idea of the Sun at its highest/lowest point and using 'tilt',people get these awkward explanations that don't work.

If you  could get the Earth to stop its daily rotation ,all places on the planet's surface would still  experience a single day/night cycle lasting one year long just as they do presently at the North/South poles.It is hard to appreciate the single day/night cycle at habitable latitudes as the foreground noise of daily rotation kind of hinders people from recognizing this orbital cycle going on in the background but it is there and when mixed with daily rotation at our latitudes causes the seasons.

Because of the unique features of Uranus you can appreciate that the planet turns South to North in its daily cycle but turns East to West to the central Sun due to its orbital motion -

http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/1999/11

Bet you didn't learn this at school !.

Korben Dallas
Korben Dallas

@Ski King False. In the English-speaking world the Summer Solstice day is also known as "mid-summer sun day" specifically because it marks the mid-point of summer.

Kathleen Nyssen
Kathleen Nyssen

@Korben Dallas Hmmm...so you are saying that June 21st is the mid-point of summer, with June 1st being the beginning. So your position (no pun intended!) is that there are roughly 42 days of summer??

Nuts...

Mint Rubber
Mint Rubber

@Alf Lacis Well her profile says she is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. So, if she thinks Summer starts on May 1st, she is obviously equating seasons with temperature/weather and that is not how it is done.

Korben Dallas
Korben Dallas

@Victoria Luke That is absolutely correct and this is the universally accepted scientific definition of the seasons.

In on-scientific contexts people use calendar seasons, of course, with Northern Hemisphere summer beginning on June 1st.

Mint Rubber
Mint Rubber

@Victoria Luke You couldn't be more wrong. Summer starts on 21st June and ends on 20th September. This isn't subjective. It's fact.

Jani Raines
Jani Raines

@Victoria Luke Yes, exactly. Thanks for adding this. 


Bridget Cameron
Bridget Cameron

Hi Gerald, 

I think because of it's Pagan origins it is good to keep a reverence for the sun and call it Summer/Winter Solstice. Just like the Equinox, which is the beginning of Autumn/Spring in both hemisphere's respectively. National Geographic needs to acknowledge the Southern Hemisphere of this planet, in order to rectify this bias, as they always forget the Southern Hemisphere, when they talk Solstices and Equinoxes. I think Uranus is remarkable!   @Gerald Kelleher 

David Mottram
David Mottram

@Korben Dallas @Victoria Luke So where is the "universally accepted definition" published and by which scientific body? The International Astronomical Union makes no such claim on its web site so who does?

Korben Dallas
Korben Dallas

@Mint Rubber False. June 21st is the peak point of astronomical summer, not the start of it. Astronomical summer starts at the beginning of May.

For ordinary people, of course, summer starts on Jube 1st.


Lawrence Cluley
Lawrence Cluley

@Mint Rubber@Victoria LukeFact in your personal eyes and from what you have been subject to all your life more than likely.

I would equate summer or winter to be based on the premise that it be calculated centrally from the longest or shortest day. Meaning that it would start being calculated approximately 1.5 months from the longest or shortest day and therefore 1.5 months after, so I would agree more with Victoria and as human as we are, making it the 1st of the month (just to round it down)

BTW solstice is never at the same time or date: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AonYZs4MzlZbdDRETUhwMEIyWl9xYTltRVByNHlycmc&hl=en_US#gid=0

Then due to the calendar having 12 months you could somewhat define spring and fall (autumn)

It is a personal preference but to me this makes more sense!

David Mottram
David Mottram

@Mint Rubber @Victoria Luke It isn't "fact" as there is NO international body with the authority to define it  and no international body has even attempted to do it. All any of you are offering is opinion or, perhaps, custom.

Gene Bivins
Gene Bivins

@David Mottram @Korben Dallas @Victoria Luke Just as 12:00 midnight and 12:00 noon are arbitrarily set by us when the earth is directly facing away from and toward the sun, so the beginning of summer is arbitrarily set by us in the northern hemisphere when the north pole is at its nearest to the sun and in the southern when the south pole is at its nearest. Those days happen to be June 21 and December 21.

David Mottram
David Mottram

@Mint Rubber So where is the supposed designation published? Which act of Parliament defined it this way? Unless you can point me to this "official" designation, your idea remains just your personal opinion.

Korben Dallas
Korben Dallas

@Mint Rubber Absolutely false.

Only in US you can find this bizzarre reference to Summer Solstice as beginning of summer with even more bizzare rationale behind it. This is actually some sort of joke someone played on Americans.

Everywhere in Northern Hemisphere people consider June 1st the beginning of summer.

Mint Rubber
Mint Rubber

In the US, UK and most other countries, the start of summer is officially designated at 21st June. That is not opinion, it is fact.

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