The Earth Moves: Examining the Solstice

Stonehenge at sunset marks the solstice in England
Stonehenge at sunset, Wiltshire, England.
Getty Images

Tuesday, June 21, was the summer solstice, when those of us in the Northern Hemisphere got the most hours of daylight. It was a glorious thing. The sun rose at 5:25 a.m. here. It set 15 hours later at 8:31 p.m. It was wonderful.

The summer solstice is also noted in the Southern Hemisphere where it marks the day of least daylight. At our level Down Under, the sun rose about 8:15 a.m. and set around 4:20 p.m. that summer day. Just a peek of sunshine. And at the summer solstice it’s winter weather down there. Cold.

Occasionally, an interesting photograph sent by some stranger appears on my cell phone. I got one on the morning of the summer solstice.

It was a photo of a gaggle of 300 women wearing red bathing caps running across a beach naked to splash into the ocean off the south coast of Tasmania. Tasmania is an island just below Australia. They seemed to be having a wonderful time. Like our polar bear plunges here on New Year’s. Same thing. Except with nothing but red bathing caps.

No information accompanied this photograph. But I enjoyed it. And I passed it on. So, to whoever, thank you.

From the deck of my house here in the Hamptons, I look west across a harbor to where the sun sets over a far shore. In December, it sets behind a marina on the left. But as the months of January and February unfold, it sets further and further to the right. And as more months pass, it moves faster to the right. In April, however, it starts to slow, until, finally, at the solstice in June, it stops, arriving at its farthest point. Days go by. It still sets in the same place. But then, slowly at first, it begins to move back to the left, until six months later it sets again over the marina. Cold. Not much daylight.

In England, the ancients built Stonehenge to witness the summer and winter solstices. Crowds gathered. And on the appropriate day, the beam of the sun which had been slowly moving along the ground inside the circle as it set arrived exactly at the center of Stonehenge where it came to a halt. It was a cause for celebration. The sun had done it. 

Well, we now know it is not the sun that does it. It is the Earth. I’ve been thinking about it. The whole arrangement, the sun, the Earth and all the other planets are hurtling through space at a million miles an hour. And yet, here, apparently, we pick up speed to then slow and come to a halt on June 21 before reversing and going back the other way. 

Perhaps the Earth has some great engine in the center to cause this. I don’t know. I don’t feel any engine rumbling down there. Nothing trembles under my feet. Nothing wobbles or shakes.

We’re all pretty much held in place by gravity, though, just passengers, tiny specks from the Earth’s perspective, going for the ride. And it’s hard to tell. 

Nevertheless, it is my belief that a huge gear noisily shifts its levers into neutral on that day, and then into reverse to begin to power the planet back the way it came. I wonder if the ancients at Stonehenge felt it. 

Another photo that appeared on my phone the other day showed a group of people standing on the shore of a river in Louisiana, looking at a creature sitting motionless just under the water’s surface. The creature, the caption said, is a fresh water skate that is, apparently, the largest ever seen. Usually, they grow to be about the size of a dinner plate. This one is 9 feet long and weighs approximately 600 pounds. People stare at it. The creature stares back.

Another picture sent to me shows a new kind of polar bear. It was photographed in Alaska. It is larger than a regular polar bear and has fur that is tan with black markings rather than just white. It’s a new species that’s evolved, the experts say. 

After naturalist Charles Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean off Ecuador 165 years ago and saw these astonishing creatures he had never seen before, he wrote a book about the origin of the species, in which he proposed a theory of evolution, outlining how over the millennia existing creatures have offspring that slowly evolve to accommodate themselves to a changing environment. 

But this has turned out not to be true. Not long ago, scientists experienced what they call their “aha moment.” They caused creatures to evolve in just months. So much for millennium-long evolution.

Environmentalists fret that our warming planet is causing species after species to go extinct. The boobies are gone. The Caspian tigers are gone. The western black rhinos are gone. The Maui arepa bird is gone. The rusty grebe is gone. All gone because of the changing environment.

But they don’t tell you about the new arrivals. I suspect this black-and-tan polar bear loves to swim, eats fish by just opening his mouth so the critters can swim in, and hates to walk on ice because it hurts his paws. Thank goodness the ice is melting.

So here we are, humans, smugly currently enjoying being at the top of the food chain on he surface of the Earth, apparently only pestered a little bit about how the planet has warmed and is sending storms, fires, earthquakes, pestilences and tsunamis charging around all over. Damn. What to do? 

I say get with the program. This warming planet is going to do just fine. Yes, we caused it. And we are too selfish to stop it. And so, I expect that some humans will evolve into a new kind of higher-level species very much like our own that is both able to live with this warming and have the smarts to stop creating it. 

Who will be the first? You? Elon Musk

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