The March 2018 equinox – the Northern Hemisphere’s spring or vernal equinox and the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn equinox – falls on Tuesday, March 20 at 16:15 UTC (12:15 p.m. EDT; translate UTC to your time). Twice a year – at the March and September equinoxes – everyone worldwide supposedly receives 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. Is it true? Not exactly. There’s actually more day than night on the day of an equinox. There are two reasons why:
Keeping reading to understand more …
It’s not pointlike, as stars are, and yet – by definition – most almanacs regard sunrise as when the leading edge of the sun first touches the eastern horizon. They define sunset as when the sun’s trailing edge finally touches the western horizon.
This in itself provides an extra 2.5 to 3 minutes of daylight at mid-temperate latitudes.
Atmospheric refraction. The Earth’s atmosphere acts like a lens or prism, uplifting the sun about 0.5 degrees from its true geometrical position whenever the sun nears the horizon. Coincidentally, the sun’s angular diameter spans about 0.5 degrees, as well.
In other words, when you see the sun on the horizon, it’s actually just below the horizon.
What does atmospheric refraction mean for the length of daylight? It advances the sunrise and delays the sunset, adding nearly another six minutes of daylight at mid-temperate latitudes. Hence, more daylight than night at the equinox.
Astronomical almanacs usually don’t give sunrise or sunset times to the second. That’s because atmospheric refraction varies somewhat, depending on air temperature, humidity and barometric pressure. Lower temperature, higher humidity and higher barometric pressure all increase atmospheric refraction.
On the day of the equinox, the center of the sun would set about 12 hours after rising – given a level horizon, as at sea, and no atmospheric refraction.
Bottom line: There’s slightly more day than night on the day of an equinox. That’s because the sun is a disk, not a point of light, and because Earth’s atmosphere refracts (bends) sunlight. These factors add up to provide an additional 8 or so minutes of daylight on the day of the equinox at mid-temperate latitudes.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.