Somersaulting toward the Sun

Today the Sun reaches solstitium, solstice, Sun-Standing: its halting at its northernmost level in our skies.

It isn’t the Sun that moves but our planet, which has come to where it nods toward the Sun.  Feel it lean; feel it tip you sunward.  I was going to draw a skateboarder maintaining a constant lean as she circles around a bonfire, but then I remembered Table Rock.

View from Table Rock, South Carolina

Table Rock is at the northern end of South Carolina, and is the highest mountain in the state.  It’s in Table Rock State Park and overlooks Table Rock Lake; the proper name for the summit is Pinnacle Point, but we usually called it Table Rock.  The name was supposed to go back to the Cherokees, though I think they would have been more imaginative; it looks less like a table than like a whale.

Once when I was about to take a walk up it with a friend, I showed her the topographic map of the area and she said: “Are there really so many trails?”  They were the hundreds of contours, wrapped around the slopes.  I’d show you what I mean, but I’ve just, while moving, thrown away my large collection of American maps.  Well, it was something like this but more so.


And when I was up here with another friend who also had frank gaps in her education, she said: “What does ‘south’ mean?”  Table Rock is an ideal place at which to feel what south means, and what the solstice means.

From up here, you come close to sensing the Earth as a ball and yourself on the down-rounded surface of it.  The rock rolls away downward.  South Carolina, first its forested piedmont and then its distant lowland, seems to roll away downward toward the dipping horizon, which itself seems down-rounded and may even be slightly so because you are so high above it.  South Carolina rolls away southward (roughly), so that at midday it dips away downward under the Sun.

In March and September the Sun is on the celestial equator, which is about where that streak of cloud happens to be.  At the June solstice it is twenty-three degrees higher.

The ball of the planet is now tipped toward the Sun; you almost feel that you could go falling forward off it, diving clear of that distant horizon.  You couldn’t, but you could certainly go rolling off Table Rock, which is a nearer model of the globe.  It is the kind of downslope that is most terrifying, because it curves, getting gradually steeper.  Not far below the horizon of it that you can see, it becomes vertical, even overhanging.  If you are so foolhardy as to venture too far down, or trip or break into a run, you won’t be able to stop.   I heard of just such an accident on Table Rock: a hiker slipped too far down, couldn’t stop, fell to her death.

To get back to the solstice: the instant of it is June 20 22:34 by Universal Time (23:34 as distorted by “summer” time in Europe, 18:34 this afternoon  in eastern North America).  This is unusually early in the calendar year.  In our age, the solstice usually falls in June 21 or sometimes 22.  The last years when it was in June 20 (by Universal Time) were 2012 (when it was a few minutes later than now) and 1896 and 1892 (when it was a few minutes earlier).   – Before 1582, when the Julian calendar was superseded by the Gregorian, the solstice was occurring on June 13.


11 thoughts on “Somersaulting toward the Sun”

  1. Your painting is a moving representation of this significant event to which I find difficulty translating into my modern busy unaware life. Thank you.

  2. Guy, I remember one time, when I was a child, being on Table Rock. There was a line painted along the edge as a warning to not go any farther. I stood at that line, looking over the edge. Now, sixty something years later, I would be cowering at the center of the rock. I’ll bet more than one person has fallen to his death from that rock.

  3. Yesterday, being Sunday and a day off work, and only a day before the solstice, I took my newish sextant to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, which has a clear southern horizon over Half Moon Bay and the Pacific Ocean. My noon sight of the Sun’s altitude was 75 degrees 40 minutes, in pretty good agreement with my planetarium software’s reading of 75 degrees 45 minutes. I could also tell, retrospectively, when the Sun’s altitude had been unchanging, and I estimated local solar noon within 45 seconds of what my watch said.

    I brought the sextant to work today, and I’ll take a noon sight, but without a clear horizon I won’t be able to check my sight against reality.

  4. At the instant of each of the solstices and equinoxes there’s one spot on the Earth where the Sun is directly overhead. I never see those locations mentioned. How about it?

    1. At the equinoxes that point (the Sun’s ground position or geographical position, in nautical parlance) would be on the equator, at the point where the equinox coincides with local solar noon. At the June solstice the Sun’s geographical position is on the tropic of Cancer, 23.5 degrees north of the equator, at the point where the solstice coincides with local solar noon. At the December solstice the Sun’s geographical position is on the tropic of Capricorn, 23.5 degrees south of the equator, at the point where the solstice coincides with local solar noon.

    2. Well, at 12 UT the sun is overhead at longitude 0, so at a first approximation (that is, leaving out the equation of time) the longitude where the sun is overhead at a certain UT time is 180 degrees, or 12 hours, away. So at 22:30 UT the sun is in the zenith for longitude 22.5*15-180 = 157.5. And latitude, at the solstice, +22.4, the tropic of Cancer. So that is in the western Pacific somewhere near the Marianas. Am I right?

      1. For the moment of today’s solstice, the Nautical Almanac gives the Sun’s Greenwich Hour Angle (equivalent to longitude) as 158 degrees 04 minutes, and the Sun’s declination (equivalent to latitude) as 23 degrees 26 minutes. So your approximation is pretty close — you’re within 30 nautical miles.

      2. That wasn’t a rhetorical question – I don’t know the answer myself! But that first approximation should be 157.5 degrees *West*, no? 157.5 degrees West 22.4 degrees North is about 63 miles NE of Oahu.

  5. It is a thought-provoking activity to look immediately after sunset at Earth’s shadow jutting slightly above the eastern horizon. From a high point, such as Table Rock, that shadow points east-northeast in June and east-southeast in December, towards their respective solstice positions.

    1. I’ve never noticed a shadow jutting above the eastern horizon. I’ll have to look for it.
      Are you sure you have the shadow’s direction correct? I would think the shadow would point southeast at the summer solstice in June.

    2. Actually I have seen the shadow of the earth, on the clouds. The clouds turn pink then grey as the shadow overcomes them.

      Still, I’m not sure your directions are correct. In June the the top of the arch of the shadow would be in the southeast right after sunset, then the top of the arch of the shadow would point northwest after passing overhead.

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