The upcoming equinox – the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn equinox and Southern Hemisphere’s spring equinox – falls at 13:31 UTC on Tuesday, September 22, 2020. For North American time zones, that’s September 22 at 9:31 a.m. EDT, 8:31 a.m. CDT, 7:31 a.m. MDT and 6:31 a.m. PDT. Twice a year – on the March and September equinoxes – everyone worldwide supposedly receives 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. Generally speaking, that’s true. But, precisely speaking, there is more daylight than nighttime on the day of the equinox, an additional eight or so minutes of daylight at mid-temperate latitudes. There are two reasons why we have more than 12 hours of daylight on this day of supposedly equal day and night. They are:
1. The sun is a disk, not a point.
2. Atmospheric refraction.
1. The sun is a disk, not a point. Watch any sunset, and you know the sun appears in Earth’s sky as a disk.
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 1/2 to 3 minutes of daylight at mid-temperate latitudes.
2. 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 geometrically.
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.
What is an equilux? Here’s a new word for you, equilux. The word is used to describe the day on which day and night are equal. The equilux happens a few to several days after the autumn equinox, and a few to several days before the spring equinox.
Much as earliest sunrises and latest sunsets vary with latitude, so the exact date of an equilux varies with latitude. That’s in contrast to the equinox itself, which is a whole-Earth event, happening at the same instant worldwide. At and near the equator, there is no equilux whatsoever, because the daylight period is over 12 hours long every day of the year.
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.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.