Putting a long winter’s night to good use

Putting a long winter’s night to good use

Our weather systems of late seem to be an all or nothing proposition where a string of cloudless blue sky days and crisp starlit nights yield in an instant to a mess of fog, rain, snow or a combination of all three. Just as soon as the grumbling starts, however, we’re back to enough of the good stuff to keep us from going batty.

I’m not necessarily a fan of foul weather, but I do agree with the old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. There’s nothing like a bluebird day or starlit night after a dose of nasty winter weather. It makes me want to rush out into the sun or stars to take in as much as I can before the next storm system barrels in.

Finding something to love about the outdoors in this, the darkest time of the year is as simple as stepping out into the darkness and looking up. Long winter nights are ideal for stargazing, given the extra hours of darkness we’ve gained as the sun has retreated to its annual low. Nighttime on the winter solstice on Dec. 21 is nearly a full six hours longer than on the summer solstice in June. That means you can catch a good evening of stargazing just after dinnertime and still get a full night’s sleep before sunrise.

The wintertime sky is typically as clean and clear as it gets. Cold air can’t hold nearly as much water vapor as the warm summer air, so the haze that is quite often the limiting factor for summertime stargazers, even when the sky appears cloudless, is no longer a factor. Gone too is the constant pall of wildfire smoke that smudged our skies for much of the summer and fall. Precipitation and lower temperatures have offered a grateful reprieve for the forests of both Eastern and Western Canada that were devastated during last year’s fire season.

If you act quickly, you can still catch the tail end of the annual Geminid meteor shower. The earth will pass out of the debris stream of the asteroid Phaethon, sponsor of the annual event, by Dec. 24. The Geminids are a favorite for fans of “falling stars,” both because of the visibility offered by the clear winter skies and also because the shower can be extremely productive. My wife and I saw a burst of six meteors in the span of only 10 minutes the other night, including one that split halfway through its fall to create a “wishbone” trail through the sky.

While meteor showers are often named for the constellation from which they appear to emanate, you need not concentrate on a single spot with the Geminids. As a matter of fact, the best way to catch a shooting star is to put yourself in a comfortable position with eyes toward the sky and try to open your own focus as widely as possible. Our eyes and brains are tuned to catch movement, and once your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, you might be amazed at what you’ll see when you trust them to do the work.

If you miss out on the Geminids, don’t despair. There are a dozen significant meteor showers sprinkled throughout the calendar year with the next coming during the first week of January. Furthermore, there’s always something interesting to see in a cloudless wintertime sky, so get out there while the weather’s good and enjoy the moment.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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