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Each season has its appeal, but the arrival of spring is a special time as the wildflowers
awaken one by one, the birds begin their frenzied activity as they build nests and
the trees break bud and begin growing. All of this activity is triggered by the gradual
lengthening of the days as winter recedes in the rearview mirror and spring stretches
ahead like an unfulfilled promise.
Of course the lengthening of the days with its corresponding delivery of more heat
and light is the catalyst behind this seasonal rush into spring. When I cared for
our little houseplant collection while teaching at the UofA, I began seeing the first
stirrings about the third week of January. This was about a month after the winter
solstice, the shortest day of the year. As the season progressed, the rate of change
picked up and soon full-on spring had arrived.
I always thought that as spring arrived, the daily increment of sunlight added each
day increased but I never took time to understand why this occurred. As I watch this
new spring season arrive, it seems like now is high time to investigate this phenomenon
The seasonal changes in day length occur because the 23.5-degree tilt of the earth
— relative to the sun — results in the sun appearing to move north in the fall and
south in the spring. The amount of daily change in the length of the day depends on
both the closeness (in days) from the solstice and the location on our planet. Near
the equator there is almost no change in the length of the day during the annual circuit
around the sun while at the north pole there are periods of 24 hours of sunlight around
the summer solstice and 24 hours of darkness around the winter solstice.
In the mid-latitudes where we live, our longest day in June during the summer solstice
is about 14.5 hours of sunlight while during the winter solstice it is nine and a
half hours. The change in daily hours of light over this 176-day period is not consistent,
instead taking on the form of a flattened bell-shaped curve. During the days nearest
the summer or winter solstice the change in the length of the day is negligible. As
the spring or autumnal equinox (when the length of the day and night are equal) approaches,
the rate of day length change reaches its maximum.
A month after the winter solstice, the houseplants I was tending were picking up on
the extra added minute of light each day. By March 21 when the spring equinox occurred,
they were really happy with three minutes of daylight added each day. After the equinox,
the rate of daily change again slows, reaching a period of no daily change as the
planet arrives at its most southerly exposure at the summer solstice.
In northern latitudes such as Alaska, the aforementioned bell-shaped curve is not
flattened much with the daily rate of change much greater than we experience. At the
spring equinox, northern cities experience as much as eight minutes of extra light
each day, or almost an hour more sunlight each week.
The reason for this non-uniform rate of change in the length of the day and night
cycle is that the earth is behaving like the bob at the end of a pendulum. The sun
is the anchor point. As a pendulum swings along the arc of its path, it stops as it
reaches the high point on either end of the arch (the summer and winter solstice).
At its lowest point in the arc (the vernal and autumnal equinox), the velocity (rate
of change) is at its greatest.
At the equator there is no difference in the length of the day and night, so there
is no significant movement along the path of the pendulum. In northern latitudes the
annual change from light to dark is extreme, so the velocity (rate of change) is greater.
In our mid-continental way, ours is a mid-sized change in the length of the day and
So, over the next month we will be adding about 20 extra minutes of daylight each
week. This extra heat and light will provide the energy nature needs to rev up for
another year and improve our spirits as the dark days of winter slip away.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at email@example.com.