Saturday, December 22, 2018

2018 Winter Solstice Brings a Couple of Surprizes

The Winter Solstice coincides with December's full moon, called the Long Night Moon.

The 2018 winter solstice occurred yesterday, December 21st, marking both the shortest day and longest night of the year.
This is a day I always look forward to because from here on out (for the next six months, anyway,) each day will bring us an additional moment or two of sunlight as the Northern Hemisphere begins slowly tilting toward the sun once again, as it does at this time every year. But this year something unusual is happening as well…

There’s a full moon this weekend, actually reaching its peak around lunchtime today (Saturday. the 22nd,) and clear skies tonight should show us a full moon in the night sky. The December full moon has been referred to by many as the Long Night Moon, since it happens during the time when the nights in this part of the world are at their longest. Native Americans called it the Cold Moon, since this is the beginning of the coldest part of the year. Don’t be fooled by the overnight low dipping only to about 50 degrees last night, I will be around 35 degrees late tonight.

Tomorrow night will likely bring intermittent clouds and rain, so tonight will be your best chance for a clear view of the Cold Moon. The last time this full moon coincided with the Winter Solstice was in 2010, and won’t repeat again until 2029, says one source, and 2094,says another (which one published a typo?) Either way, this is a rare occurrence. But tonight we can look for yet another little bonus…

The Ursid meteor shower will peak tonight, bringing shooting stars to the stage. The full moon will brighten the sky, lessening visibility of the meteors colliding with Earth’s atmosphere, but don’t let that, or the colder weather tonight, stop you from trying to spot them.

Here’s some advise offered through NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: "... Bundle up if you want to watch for meteors, as it is getting late in the year! Get to a dark spot, get comfortable, bring extra blankets to stay warm, and let your eyes adjust to the dark sky. A cozy lounge chair makes for a great seat, as does simply lying on your back on a blanket, eyes scanning the whole sky."

NOAA illustration attempts to explain the Winter Solstice.
The parking lot at Herring Cove is far from any lights or tall trees that might interfere with your view of the night sky, and is one of my two favorite local spots for this sort of sky watching. The other is in North Truro, at the top of the little hill near the Salty Market (formerly Dutra’s,) looking out over Cape Cod Bay and Provincetown Harbor. From the market, at the intersection of Shore Road (Route 6A) and Highland Road, go west on Pond Road, passing by Village Pond, and take the right-hand fork in the road up a small hill to a tiny parking lot.

If you drive to either of these vantage points, you can stay fairly warm in your car while waiting for your eyes to really adjust to the dark, which experts say could take up to 30 minutes. And if you’re looking at the full moon, which will be moving across the sky as the night goes on, your eyes won’t adjust. To the darkest parts of the sky, which is where you’ll look for meteors scooting by. So this gets a little complicated. You may want to enjoy the moon for a while and then shift your gaze away, to a dark part of the sky, for your best chance to eventually spot those “shooting Stars.” 

The full moon glows above Earth in this splendid NASA photo.
Block as much light from your eyes as you can. Position your car’s visor to block the moon from view, or tape a small square of cardboard in place on your window and move it as the moon moves across the sky so you can stay focused on the darkest spots. If you’re listening to music while you’re looking for meteors, block out a  the light you can by covering all lights on your dashboard or cell phone. Keep your eyes constantly scanning up and down, left to right, like you might if you were watching for a whale to spout on the seascape.

I keep a big downy comforter in the car to keep me warm on adventures in the cold. You don’t want to run the engine to stay warm. It would kind of kill the spirit of the event. Take a thermos of hot cocoa with you, maybe a snack, because you might be out there for a while.

If all of this just sounds like too much, I’ll bet you’ll find some great photos of these events posted online tomorrow, maybe even some NASA photos. And if you’re brave and hardy enough to venture out in the cold for these events, I salute you!