It’s the last month of a very long year; at least it feels that way. One time I tried to put a color with each month and for December I chose black. It seems an appropriate choice because our general mood. This time of year is normally filled with festivities enhanced by the many colored lights we use to decorate our homes inside and out. This year we need those bright lights more than ever. Even in a normal year I believe one of the reasons we do this is to counteract the blackness of our long nights.
For the majority of this month, we continue to lose daylight. This far north we will reach a maximum of only 8 hours and 47 minutes of daylight on December 21st – the Winter Solstice. We can be thankful that we don’t live any further north, because the days just keeps getting shorter and shorter. The bright spot in all of this is that after December 21, we start to make tiny, incremental gains on increased daylight each day.
We humans weren’t designed for this kind of photoperiod, even though humans have been living in the far northern hemisphere for thousands of years. We began our time on this earth living nearer to the equator where the day/night photoperiod is close to twelve hours each.
We can also be thankful that we don’t have to live under the conditions of our ancestors just a little over 100 years ago, when the only light they had to lengthen the black night were candles, or kerosene lanterns. Candlelight creates a beautiful mood when we want to dine with someone special, or maybe celebrate a birthday, but trying to read, or cook, or do almost anything else by candlepower is very challenging, not to mention dangerous. The invention of the incandescent light bulb was as significant as any invention of modern time. It changed our world almost overnight and continues to do so now.
But, there is the saying, ‘too much of a good thing’ and that is what has happened over the last 50 years in terms of lighting up the world. I love the black night sky. In the winter, it is actually easier to see the stars and planets and moon, because there is less moisture in the air and less haze to obscure our vision. I feel incredibly lucky to live in a part of the state and out in the country, where the level of light pollution is low enough, that I can go out and search the sky for constellations, planets, coasting satellites, or even the International Space Station.
Dark skies are endangered and growing more so all the time. There is a now famous image that has gone around on the internet that shows the earth at night from outer space. It is astounding and discouraging. You can view the image at: http://geology.com/articles/satellite-photo-earth-at-night.shtml. It’s a long address, but worth checking out.
As much as we try to deny it, we are biological creatures and as such we are affected by changes in photoperiod. We need daylight and we need the darkness of night. Because of the increase of outdoor lighting, we are losing our ability to see in low-light settings. One report suggested that “Forty percent of Americans and Western Europeans never or rarely experience night vision,” To learn more about keeping the blackness in our night skies, you can check out the International Dark Sky Association’s website at http://www.darksky.org
Besides the Solstice on December 21, there is another event occurring in the heavens that night. It’s called a “Great Conjunction” and refers to a point in time in the northern hemisphere when Jupiter and Saturn align so that they are just 0.1 degrees apart (as seen by our eyes). Great conjunctions occur about every 20 years but this will be the closest Jupiter/Saturn conjunction since the year 1623 CE! Look low in the southwestern horizon soon after sunset. A telescope or even binoculars should show the two near one another. Earlier in the month on the 16th and 17th the two planets will be seen just above a waxing crescent moon.
Hopefully, the skies will be cloud free on these nights. But on any night of the month, when you step out under that big black dome, stop, look up, breathe deeply, turn in a circle so your eyes can gather as many of the pinpricks of starlight as possible. Then think about how you are seeing something that millions of others either take for granted, or never see at all, and thank your lucky stars.