The March equinox heralds the arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. On this day, the sun pretty much rises due east and sets due west.
It may seem counterintuitive. But it’s true no matter where you live on Earth (except the North and South Poles, where there is no east or west).
To understand the nearly due-east and due-west rising and setting of an equinox sun, you have to think of the reality of Earth in space. First think of why the sun’s path across our sky shifts from season to season. It’s because our world is tilted on its axis with respect to its orbit around the sun.
Now think about what an equinox is. It’s an event that happens on the imaginary dome of Earth’s sky. It marks that special moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator going from south to north. And it also, of course, represents a point on Earth’s orbit.
The celestial equator is a great circle dividing the imaginary celestial sphere into its northern and southern hemispheres. The celestial equator wraps the sky directly above Earth’s equator. At the March equinox, the sun crosses the celestial equator to enter the sky’s Northern Hemisphere.
All these components are imaginary, yet what happens at every equinox is very real – as real as the sun’s passage across the sky each day and as real as the change of the seasons.
No matter where you are on Earth (except for the North and South Poles), you have a due east and due west point on your horizon. That point marks the intersection of your horizon with the celestial equator, the imaginary great circle above the true equator of the Earth.
And that’s why the sun rises close to due east and sets close to due west, for all of us, at the equinox. The equinox sun is on the celestial equator. No matter where you are on Earth, the celestial equator intersects your horizon at due east and due west.
This fact makes the day of an equinox a good day for finding east and west from your yard or other favorite site for watching the sky. Just go outside around sunset or sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to familiar landmarks.
If you do this, you’ll be able to use those landmarks to find those cardinal directions in the weeks and months ahead, long after Earth has moved on in its orbit around the sun, carrying the sunrise and sunset points northward.
Our ancestors may not have understood the equinoxes and solstices as events that occur in the course of Earth’s yearly orbit around the sun. But if they were observant – and some were very observant indeed – they surely marked the day of the equinox as being midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.
If they thought in terms of four directions, they might also have learned a fact of nature that occurs whenever there’s an equinox: each midway point between the sun’s lowest and highest path.
We can say with reasonably good accuracy that the sun rises due east and sets due west on the day of the equinox, as seen from around the globe. For anyone questing more precision for the sunrise/sunset direction in your part of the world, check out the altitude/azimuth table for the sun via the US Naval Observatory.
Bottom line: The 2020 March equinox comes on March 20 at 3:50 UTC (on March 19 at 10:50 p.m. CDT; translate to your time zone). At the equinox, the sun practically rises and sets due east and due west.