A Solstice Vignette

Winter Trail Courtesy Pixabay
Winter Trail
Courtesy Pixabay
In the frigid dark of long winter nights, we tell stories—stories of thievery, heroism, and light. Raven, Maui, and Koo-loó-pe, the hummingbird. They are all said to have taken back the sun from too much darkness for their people, and their deeds remain the whispered subjects around campfires that lead up to the winter solstice. I’d like to tell a story of my own about our calendar’s longest, darkest night and our relationship with it.

The first archaeological evidence we have that point to organized observances of the winter solstice come from the Neolithic period—that era from about 12,000 to 6,500 years ago which hastened the Stone Age into those of Copper and Bronze. The Neolithic coincided with the invention of farming in the Near East; and on the heels of farming came the necessity of a calendar, upon which the new agrarian economy was utterly dependent—for delineating seasons, planting and harvesting crops, and monitoring food stores over winter. We looked to the sky, of course, as we always had, for such insights into the survival of our species. We found familiar patterns there—the ebb and flow of darkness and light that came with the ever changing arc of the sun. From north to south the sun wanders, from light to dark and warm to cold. We built shrines to its movement. You know their names: Stonehenge and Newgrange; the Goseck circle and Chaco Canyon’s sun dagger. Each culture would create its own method of tracking, observing, and then of celebrating. We built tools, and then shrines, and then we built mythology.

The Neolithic agrarian economy lived by the sun. As darkness fell on wintery fields, our Stone Age ancestors shared stories about that moment when the light would return, hoping that their characters could hasten the sun. Reverence is a powerful thing. It informs the stories we tell about ourselves–stories of existence balanced on moments. We revere the return of the light when the night is at its darkest and longest. That’s when we send Raven, Maui, or an exuberant Miwok hummingbird to bring the sun back from too much darkness. That’s the mythology, at least.

A Solstice Vignette: The Seasons Courtesy US NWS
The Seasons
Courtesy US NWS
Astronomically speaking, the winter solstice is ephemeral. In the northern hemisphere, it occurs at the exact moment when the northern portion of the Earth’s axis is tilted directly away from the sun at its farthest point. This year, in the Mountain West, that moment is Saturday, December 21st, at 9:19pm. But astronomy’s geometries and physics are only part of the tale. Our stories are told with an affinity for more than just practical science.

Solstice means “to be still,” to wait for the return of the light. We attach great meaning to it. The cluster of holidays we have in winter worldwide are evidence enough of that. Every culture recognizes, in its own way, the vast significance of this fleeting moment; and those observances connect us through time to the ancestors that first looked up—marking time, checking dates, counting bushels until the next harvest. The solstice is a moment we barely notice, but one that bears immense anticipation. We move right through it at the speed of time—then tell our stories to lend meaning to that time spent moving, from the light through to darkness and back again.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Photos: Courtesy US NWS
Photos: Courtesy Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/photos/snow-weather-trail-winter-autumn-834111/
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling & Friend Weller
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Astronomy Picture of the Day, NASA, https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap071222.html

Solstices & Equinoxes for Ogden (Surrounding 10 Years), TimeandDate.com, https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/seasons.html?n=4975

Byrd, Deborah, All you need to know: December solstice, EarthSky.org, Dec 15, 2019, https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/everything-you-need-to-know-december-solstice

Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks

Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks: View looking east in early summer from Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
View looking east in early summer from Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
If visitors find locations in Utah’s National Parks, where very little man-made sounds are heard, it can be a breathtaking experience. A park visitor may canoe along riparian habitat and hear a variety of bird calls, or hike a trail and come around a bend to see a few deer jump over the sage-brush.

These types of experiences may also occur after dark when visitors participate in stargazing or a full-moon hikes.

The southern Milky Way visible during a star party at Cedar Breaks National Monument. We use red lights on the telescopes during star parties to help preserve night vision. Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
The southern Milky Way visible during a star party at Cedar Breaks National Monument. We use red lights on the telescopes during star parties to help preserve night vision.
Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
Mark and Sallie Shelton said, “Utah dark skies are our passion! The [dark] sky and quiet solitude are magical. Visitors, from around the world, are in awe when they get their first [heavenly] glimpse of [the Milky Way] and see the stars shining like diamonds on dark velvet.”

Protecting the quiet and darkness of our National Parks has become a priority for many managers and researchers.

Four planets and the Moon are visible in the twilight sky over ancient Bristlecone Pine trees at Cedar Breaks NM Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
Four planets and the Moon are visible in the twilight sky over ancient Bristlecone Pine trees at Cedar Breaks NM
Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
Christopher Monz, professor in the Department of Environment and Society in the Quinney College of Natural Resource at USU joined with five other scientists who have all worked on issues of noise pollution and light pollution to compile the book, “Natural Quiet and Natural Darkness: The “New” Resources of the National Park.”
title=”Four planets and the Moon are visible in the twilight sky over ancient Bristlecone Pine trees at Cedar Breaks NM Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer”
The Summer Milky Way as seen from Point Supreme at Cedar Breaks NM. The landscape is illuminated by the light of a 1st Quarter moon. Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
The Summer Milky Way as seen from Point Supreme at Cedar Breaks NM. The landscape is illuminated by the light of a 1st Quarter moon.
Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
Monz explains, “[We wanted] to compile, in one place, the best science on both the social and ecological dimensions regarding the importance of the resources of darkness and quiet, and the consequences of them slowly disappearing in our most precious protected areas – the national parks.”

The book gathered many interesting findings.

Visitors enjoying a quiet day at Hovenweep National Monument Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
Visitors enjoying a quiet day at Hovenweep National Monument
Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
One is the concept of “listening area” which is the distance an individual (human or animal) can hear normal sounds and calls that they’re evolved and adapted to. For a bird species it might be a mating call, for deer it might an alert response from a predator.

As noise increases the listening area may decrease dramatically.

Monz said, “In the United States noise from roads has increased three fold since 1970.”

A three decibel increase in noise results in a 50 percent decrease in listening area. If there is a 10 decibel increase, the result is a staggering 90 percent decrease in listening area.

Monz explains, “If you put noise into the environment there is the potential for significant ecological implications, particularly for wildlife. They can no longer be reliant on the sense of hearing to carry out normal activities…some species will move out of those noisy areas to quieter environments which creates a displacement effect.”

For humans, this means we have less opportunities to engage with the sights and sounds of nature.

One success story outlined in the book occurred in Muir Woods National Monument in California. Monz said, “Simply by putting up signs which raised the visitor’s awareness of the environment they were in, and the importance of quiet for other visitors, the noise decreased by 2 decibels. This gave folks an opportunity to experience better natural quiet environment and a little bit more biodiversity from the standpoint of hearing bird calls from the surrounding forest.”

The book also provides ideas for managing the resource of darkness in the National parks.

Guests enjoying Arches National Park Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
Guests enjoying Arches National Park
Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
Monz said, “Right now 80% of the world’s population lives in locations where there is some compromise of natural darkness…most will never see the Milky Way.”

Cedar Breaks National Monument, which has the highest star gazing site at 10,500 feet, received an award from The International-Dark Sky Association (IDA) for preserving its Dark skies.

The authors of “Natural Quiet and Natural Darkness” hope the book will get in the right hands to provide park managers with this easily accessible tool where they can find the best science and actionable ideas to increase quiet and darkness in our National Parks.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks-Credits:
    Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer, Education Specialist, Cedar Breaks National Monument
    Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt,
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright
Text: Shauna Leavitt, Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks-Additional Reading

Star Gazing, Cedar Breaks National Monument, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/star-gazing.htm

Cedar Breaks National Monument Designated as an International Dark Sky Park, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/learn/news/cedar-breaks-national-monument-designated-as-an-international-dark-sky-park.htm

Burkitt, Bree, Cedar Breaks recognized as Dark Sky Park, The Spectrum, https://www.thespectrum.com/story/news/local/cedar-city/2017/03/09/cedar-breaks-recognized-dark-sky-park/98980850/

Spotlight – The Cedar Breaks National Monument Master Astronomer Program, Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative, https://cpdarkskies.org/2018/10/17/spotlight-the-cedar-breaks-national-monument-master-astronomer-program/

Dark Skies

Delicate Arch at Night Courtesy National Park Service, Jacob W. Frank. Photographer
Delicate Arch at Night
Courtesy National Park Service, Jacob W. Frank. Photographer
The night sky…throughout history humans have looked up after the sun set in the evening and marveled at the astral bodies spread above them in a sea of black. This sight has inspired people from every age of history and from every culture around the world.

But it’s not the same as it used to be.

For most people, the cycles of night and day are so constant in our lives that we often take them for granted. The rising of the sun in the morning and its setting every evening molds our lives, and has for all of human history. The heavenly bodies we see above us, the sun, moon, planets, comets, and stars, influence all aspects of human civilization, from religion and philosophy to art and poetry. While daytime has remained constant from the beginning to the modern day, the same cannot be said for the night.

Until the end of the 19th century, the setting sun meant a world enveloped in darkness. The night was a time for retreat to homes and hearths, a respite in human activity until dawn. Try to imagine looking up into the night sky from the side of dying campfire ten thousand years ago, or from the step of a frontier cabin only two hundred years ago and seeing the moon and stars as the only source of light around you. Today this universal heritage is quickly being lost to the artificial light emitted by humans across the globe.

It may seem strange to think of darkness as a natural resource, but its importance to life on Earth cannot be overstated. Beyond humans, the billions of plants and animals across the planet have evolved over the eons to their own niche in the day-night cycle. Sunlight, or the lack of it, controls plant and animal behavior, from when to eat or sleep, when to migrate, where to travel to look for food, and even when to reproduce. The artificial light cast by cities disrupts these natural patterns for animals and can lead to hardship and death for many.

Efforts to reduce light pollution are picking up across the country and include everything from buildings and factories shutting off all non-essential lighting during animal migration seasons, to everyday citizens simply turning off outdoor lights when they go to bed.

Despite these efforts however, most Americans in the 21st century are still affected by at least some light pollution and many city-dwellers have never seen a truly dark night sky. Even for those living away from cities, a night sky might be interrupted by sky glow, a phenomenon that occurs when clouds scatter and reflect light back to earth.

Luckily for Utahns however, dark skies might be closer than you think. Utah is home to nine different “Dark Sky Parks”, certified by the International Dark-Sky Association. Among these places are Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks; Natural Bridges, Hovenweep, and Cedar Breaks National Monuments; Dead Horse Point, Goblin Valley, and Antelope Island State Parks; as well as the North Fork area in Weber County. These dark sky parks offer a distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment protected for future generations. So whether you are an astronomy enthusiast, an animal lover, or just want to see the night sky as our ancestors saw it for thousands of years, dark sky parks are the place for you.

Starry Night Vincent van Gogh Courtesy: Google Art Project
Starry Night
Vincent van Gogh
Courtesy: Google Art Project
As Vincent van Gogh, the mastermind behind the famous painting Starry Night once remarked, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

For Wild About Utah, I’m Kajler Rask.

Photos: Courtesy National Park Service, Frank W. Jacobs, Photographer
Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, Courtesy: Google Art Project
Text: Kajler Rask

Clear Sky Charts, Utah, Attilla Danko, ClearDarkSky.com, http://cleardarksky.com/csk/prov/Utah_charts.html

Utah Leads The World With Nine International Dark Sky Parks, International Dark-Sky Association, http://www.darksky.org/utah-leads-the-world-with-nine-international-dark-sky-parks/

Dark Sky Parks, Utah Office of Tourism, https://www.visitutah.com/things-to-do/dark-sky-parks

Top 5 Star Gazing Spots in Utah, Utah.com, Utah Travel Industry Website, https://utah.com/article/top-5-star-gazing-spots

Eyes In The Sky: Exploring Global Light Pollution With Satellite Maps, International Dark-Sky Association, http://www.darksky.org/eyes-in-the-sky-exploring-global-light-pollution-with-satellite-maps/

Dark Skies, Antelope Island State Park, https://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/antelope-island/dark-skies/

Utah State Parks Dark Skies Program, State Parks, Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://stateparks.utah.gov/resources/utah-state-parks-dark-sky-initiative/

Stargazing, Arches National Park, https://www.nps.gov/arch/planyourvisit/stargazing.htm

Lightscape / Night Sky, Arches National Park, https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/nature/lightscape.htm

Night Skies, Natural Bridges National Monument, https://www.nps.gov/nabr/learn/nature/darkskypark.htm

Marc Toso, AncientSkys.com, http://www.ancientskys.com/

Ring of Fire

The Hinode satellite
captured this image of
an annular solar eclipse

Hinode is a Japanese mission
in partnership with NASA,
Photo Courtesy NASA

Annular eclipse path for May 20, 2012
Courtesy Fred Espenak, NASA/GSFC

Hi, I’m Holly Strand.

On Sunday afternoon and early evening, the US mainland will experience its first solar eclipse of the 21st century. And Utahns will have first row seats.

During a total eclipse, the Earth, Moon and Sun are in perfect alignment with the Moon in the middle. For the Earthlings experiencing it, the sun’s surface is totally blocked by the moon and the sky darkens. However, sometimes the Earth-Moon-Sun alignment occurs when the moon is near its greatest distance from earth. When this happens, the moon has a smaller apparent size that is not large enough to cover the entire disk of the sun. Instead, a fiery ring of sunlight remains visible around the lunar edge. This is called an annular eclipse from the Latin word “annulus” meaning ring. And this is what some Utahns will see on Sunday.

To experience a total or annular eclipse you must be located within the eclipse path which is defined by the eclipsing moon’s shadow. The path of this Sunday’s eclipse is a 150-180 mile wide swath that begins near Hainan Island in southern China at sunrise on May 21. The center line of the eclipse path curves northeast, passing between Yokohama and Tokyo, before continuing across the Pacific. SW of the Aleutians the path traverses the International Dateline where suddenly it’s the day before- May 20. Then the path curves south and eastward striking the United States near the border of California and Oregon. Arching down through Nevada and Utah the path slices through the southwest before disappearing with the sunset in Texas.

The eclipse path encompasses the entire SW corner of Utah. Visitors to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks and Lake Powell will experience full annularity. As will the inhabitants of St George, Milford, Kanab, Cedar City, Escalante and many other southern Utah towns. Don’t despair if you are outside the full eclipse path. Anywhere in Utah, you will still experience a very impressive partial eclipse.

Even though an eclipse is an amazing sight, it is not for human eyes! Most eclipse-burned retinas belong to children or young adults so be vigilant with young ones around. The common way to experience an eclipse is with a pinhole viewer with two pieces of stiff white cards. Punch a hole in one of the cards and– with your back to the Sun–hold the card up so that light falls through the hole, projecting the eclipsed sun’s image on to the other card. Do not look at the Sun through the pinhole!

If you have some shade trees, look at the images of eclipsed sun coming through the holes formed by the leaves. You may see little rings of light in the shadows. If the leaves have little bug holes, they will also act as pinhole projectors.

If for some reason you miss this Sunday’s show, you don’t have to wait long for another…in astronomical time anyway. For on August 21st 2017, North America will experience a total solar eclipse. The path will be just to the north of Utah in central Idaho and Wyoming. Total eclipses can draw a huge number of visitors from around the country and abroad. If you think Jackson hotels are expensive now just wait ‘til 2017!

For pictures, maps of the eclipse path and advice on viewing go to www.wildaboututah.org

Special thanks to Michelle Larson, astrophysicist at Utah State University, for her help with this Wild About Utah episode.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Images: Courtesy NASA http://www.nasa.gov
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Fred Espenak’s Eclipse Web Site:

Interactive path of annularity or eclipse path of the May 20th eclipse.

Map of May 20 eclipse path in Utah
See also the home page: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~jander/

Enter a geographic location to find out about past and future eclipses: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/JSEX/JSEX-NA.html

How to view: