Astronomy Essentials

Equal day and night on the equinox?

Wide partial arc of setting sun, glowing orange below and yellow above.
Flattened sunset by Helio C. Vital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A flattened sunset is an effect of atmospheric refraction. Refraction also gives us a few more minutes of daylight on the equinox than we would have otherwise.

Wondering: Today the sun rose and set at 7:42. Doesn’t that make it the equinox? And yet spring doesn’t come until Saturday. I don’t get it! ?

Posted by Sheryl Boyes on Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The upcoming equinox – the Northern Hemisphere’s spring equinox and Southern Hemisphere’s autumn equinox – falls at 09:37 UTC on Saturday, March 20, 2021. 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.

Keep reading to learn more …

Silhouette of a man seated on a beach, watching sunset over an ocean.
Contemplating the sunset on the Philippine island of Leyte. Photo by Abie Oquias Baybay.

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.

Diagram showing direction of refracted sun's position above horizon at sunset as opposed to sun's true position.
Atmospheric refraction raises the sun about 1/2 degree upward in our sky at both sunrise and sunset. This advances the time of actual sunrise, while delaying the time of actual sunset. The result is several minutes of extra daylight, not just at an equinox, but every day. Image via Wikipedia.

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.

Visit for the approximate date of equal day and night at your latitude

Earth, with axis vertical and sun's rays hitting day side perpendicularly.
Illustrations like this one make it seem as if day and night should be equal at the equinox. In fact, they aren’t exactly equal.

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.

Read more about the March 2021 equinox: All you need to know

March 19, 2021
Astronomy Essentials

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Bruce McClure

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