The Vernal Equinox


(This column was first published in the March 18, 2002 Buffalo News.)


...can spring be far behind?


As this strange winter lurches along -- one day's temperature in the sixties, the next in the teens; bright sun one day, snow and violent winds the next -- we can at least be happy that the old man won't be around too much longer. Oh, he'll still lash out a few times. We've never been able to trust that claim about March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. But spring is indeed on its way.


In fact spring begins, according to astronomers, at 2:16 p.m. on March 20 -- this Wednesday afternoon. That is the time this year when the Earth's axis -- the diameter that connects our planet's poles -- is perpendicular to rays from the sun. During winter that axis leans away from the sun, in summer toward it. There is an excellent demonstration of this phenomenon in a movie at Eric Weisstein's World of Astronomy website. The film shows the earth as if viewed from the sun. You can stop the motion at the spring and fall equinoxes to observe the orientation of the poles on those dates.


What that means for us is that the hours of sunlight should be about the same as the hours of darkness. For us here in western New York, those times are off just a bit. On the 20th, sunrise will be at 6:19 a.m. and sunset at 6:28 p.m. and we'll already have more day than night. (Buffalo Weather Service meteorologist Dave Sage tells me that this minor discrepancy is due to the width of the sun and refraction at the horizon.)


Most years in my experience the vernal equinox as the date for the beginning of spring is premature. We often have deep snow on the ground and little life is stirring. It is often weeks before real spring breaks through.


But this year is different. In Bahre Swamp skunk cabbages are well developed, red-wings display their red-and-yellow epaulets as they squawk "konk-a-ree" and spring peepers bleat. At Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge and nearby sinks thousands of Canada geese gather with dozens of tundra swans, many pintails and even a few snow geese. Timber-doodles (aka woodcocks) have begun their strange evening flights. And red maples color Southern Tier hillsides with the soft rose of their leaf buds.


So -- as I write at least -- this year March 20 brings good cheer.


Like other astronomical events, however, the vernal equinox also brings out odd behavior, in this case egg-balancing. Supposedly on this date, when we are in this special alignment with the sun, it becomes possible to balance a raw egg on end on a flat surface.


Indeed with great care and experimenting with different eggs this feat may be accomplished. (When the heavier yolks are off-center, eggs are nearly impossible to balance.) Led on by the folklore many people do balance eggs at this time of year. One group of Mancelona, Michigan students even balanced several eggs on their small ends. That they did so in October 1999 offers strong evidence that mid-March is not special for this odd activity. More eggs are balanced at the time of the equinox simply because more people address the challenge at this time.


The source for this egg-balancing folklore was a 1945 Life Magazine article about the Chinese doing so on the first day of spring. Supported by this article, the activity caught on here. Unfortunately for believers, however, in China equinoxes are in the middle of the seasons, spring beginning there six weeks before the vernal equinox.


Poor stabilizers like me can even apply trickery to accomplish this task. Wet the end of the egg and dip it in salt. The few grains that adhere will help seat it on a table.-- Gerry Rising

An excellent resource on egg balancing is Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy website.