When Is the First Day of Fall? 16 Fun Facts About the Fall Equinox
Ready for sweater weather? Read on for surprising facts about back-to-school, apple-picking, leaf-peeping season.
Fall equinox 2020
The first day of fall in the Northern Hemisphere is September 22nd this year. At 9:31 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Earth’s annual trip around the sun hits the milestone we use to separate our seasons: The sun crosses over the equator to the southern half of the planet. For the next six months, the Northern Hemisphere will be getting less direct light from our star, and it will get chillier by the week. To make the most of the season, add these activities to your fall bucket list—stat.
What is an equinox?
The word equinox is Latin for “equal night,” and it’s the date when, in most places on Earth, the daylight lasts just about as long as the nighttime. It marks the midpoint between the summer solstice in June when Northern Hemisphere days are their longest (up to 24 hours without the sun setting in the polar regions) and the long, dark nights of the winter solstice in December when the sun never rises in the polar regions. Check out these facts about the summer solstice.
Day and night aren’t really equal on the equinox
On the fall equinox, the center of the sun is above the horizon for exactly 12 hours. But we consider the sun to be rising when the lip of it just comes into view, which can happen a few minutes before the center; at sunset, even once the sun’s center has dipped below the horizon, it takes a few more minutes for the rest of it to disappear. Plus, according to timeanddate.com, during the moments at the very beginning of the sunrise and the very end of the sunset, when there’s only a tiny bit of the sun visible to us, we’re actually seeing the image refracted by Earth’s atmosphere—it bends the light around to us even before the Earth has rotated far enough for the edge of the sun to clear the horizon. Know what’s up with the Earth year-round with these surprising winter solstice facts.
Seasons happen because of the Earth’s tilt
The Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees, so it’s not directly perpendicular to our orbit around the sun. The leaning planet is what gives us our seasons—summer in the Northern Hemisphere is the period during which the top half of Earth is pointed toward the sun. On the first day of fall, the Earth is oriented so that the sun is shining most directly on its side, rather than top or bottom. See these other mind-blowing facts about autumn.
The sun goes south
At the moment of the equinox, when the sun’s rays are concentrated on the side of the Earth, the sun is directly above the equator. Fall in the Northern Hemisphere begins just as the Earth progresses a little bit farther on in our orbit—the sun’s radiation then focuses more on the Southern Hemisphere (where spring begins) and keeps bathing the Earth’s southern half in extra light until the next equinox, in March. Don’t miss these 38 stunning photos of fall across America.
Other planets have equinoxes
A few planets have an axis that doesn’t tilt—Venus and Jupiter rotate on axes that are almost exactly perpendicular to the plane of their orbits around the sun, so there’s very little seasonal change over the course of a year (trip around the sun). Uranus, on the other hand, has an extreme tilt—98 degrees. That means it’s basically lying on its side as it orbits the sun. Plus, one trip around the sun takes Uranus 84 Earth years, so it only has an equinox (when the sun’s shining on its equator rather than one hemisphere or the other) every 42 years. Read about astronomy facts you never learned in school.
There’s a long-standing tale that you can stand eggs up on end during the first day of fall because of the unusual gravitational pull the sun exerts that day. According to the Miami Herald, brooms can be balanced on this special day as well. And, in fact, it is possible to balance eggs (and brooms) on the first day of fall, or on any other day of the year—an astronomer named Frank Ghigo tested it and published a paper in 1987 explaining that certain eggs balance more easily than others. Don’t miss these fall activities to try this year besides apple-picking.
It can disrupt the communication of satellites
Although eggs don’t behave much differently on the first day of fall, some satellites are vulnerable to disruptions—lots of them orbit around the equator, so when the sun is shining directly on them on the equinox, the unusual amount of solar radiation can lead to slow internet connections and staticky radios, according to National Geographic. These “sun outages” can happen during the days before and after the equinox too, and they usually only last a few minutes. Check out these moon mysteries that scientists are still trying to figure out.
Falling into autumn
Why does pumpkin-spice season have two names, and is one more valid than the other? The word autumn comes from Latin and began being used in England in the 1300s. People also referred to the season as “the fall of the leaves”—the phrase was eventually shortened to fall around the 1600s. A couple of hundred years later, records show that fall had become more popular in the United States and autumn had held the lead in England, but nobody’s sure why. Read more about the difference between autumn and fall.
Mayan astronomers marked the equinox
Although the first day of fall doesn’t attract quite the modern celebrations that the spring equinox and the summer solstice do, the ancient Mayans really played it up: At Chichén Itzá on the Yucatán peninsula, the Pyramid of Kukulkán (also known as El Castillo) is a pyramid with 365 steps—that’s one for each day of the year. On the fall and spring equinoxes, a shadow appears on the pyramid’s surface that looks like a serpent descending the steps toward a stone head at the bottom. Celebrate fall with these amazing foods that seem to taste better this time of year.
Ancient Egyptian astronomers might also have been tracking the sun
The surfaces of the Great Pyramid of Giza are almost perfectly aligned with north, south, east, and west, and the orientation of the pyramid of Khafre and the Red Pyramid at Dahshur are also very close to exact. Researchers have only been able to theorize about how their builders managed such precision 4,000 years ago. But an engineer named Glen Dash recently published a paper in the Journal of Ancient Egyptian Architecture suggesting that the pyramids’ planners were able to mark an almost perfect east-to-west line by tracking the shadow of a rod (called a gnomon by surveyors) on the fall equinox. His theory would explain why each pyramid is off the perfect orientation by a minuscule amount—all in a counter-clockwise direction. Dash tried the technique at home and ended up with a line that almost exactly repeated the error. Read about some of the weirdest discoveries archaeologists have made.
Jewish High Holy Days fall near the autumn equinox
The date for the Jewish New Year comes 163 days after the first day of Passover, which is coordinated with the spring equinox in March. Because of that, it tends to be near the first day of fall. In 2020, Rosh Hashanah begins September 19; a ten-day period of introspection leads to Yom Kippur (starts the evening of September 28 in 2020), or the Day of Atonement—the holiest day of the year. Learn about Rosh Hashanah and why it is celebrated.
It was New Year’s Day during the French Revolution
Once the Bastille had been stormed and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed, French revolutionaries tried to make some radical changes to the day-to-day workings of society—they wanted more rational systems that did not depend on Christian traditions. They implemented the metric system, using decimals to break down kilograms and meters (replacing the non-standard measurement systems that made trade inefficient), and in 1793 they started using the French Republican Calendar, which broke down each of the 12 months into three 10-day weeks. They back-dated the beginning of the year to September 22, 1792, the day after France had been declared a republic—that first year was meant to be “year one” of the new era. Napoleon took the country back to the Gregorian calendar in 1806. Did you know fall is the cheapest time to travel? Learn more about how to plan a trip this fall.
Different year, different day
The autumnal equinox typically takes place on the 22nd or 23rd of September, but there are some exceptions. The equinox occurred on September 21 in 1931 and the year 1000, and it’s set to land on the 21st again in 2092. Fall will officially begin on September 24 in the year 2303. The date varies from year to year due to the Gregorian calendar which defines a year at 365 days, while it takes the Earth 364 and 1/4 days to completely orbit the sun. Make sure to check your calendars for the official date each year. Don’t miss the best road trips to see the most stunning fall foliage.
Prime time for Northern Lights
Scientists say that at the September equinox, the chances of catching the Northern lights increase for those located in the northern hemisphere. The equinoxes are the best time for the Northern Lights because geomagnetic activities are twice as likely to occur during autumn and spring rather than winter or summer. Ever wonder why leaves change color this time of year? Learn more about why the beautiful fall foliage even exists.
Time for the Harvest Moon
The full moon closest to the autumnal equinox is called the Harvest Moon because of the luminosity that allows farmers the light to work late. It usually occurs in September, but sometimes will fall in October. With around 12 complete moon cycles each year, this moon isn’t like the others. Typically, the moon rises approximately 50 minutes later each day, but near the autumnal equinox, there is only a 30-minute difference. Now, learn 41 reasons why fall is our favorite season ever.
- The Old Farmer’s Almanac: “AUTUMNAL EQUINOX 2020: THE FIRST DAY OF FALL”
- NASA: “Interplanetary Seasons”
- Miami Herald: “Why do people try to balance eggs upright during the spring equinox?”
- Merriam-Webster: “Is It ‘Autumn’ or ‘Fall’?”
- National Geographic: “Chichén Itzá”
- National Geographic: “Equinox”
- The Journal of Ancient Egyptian Architecture: “Occam’s Egyptian razor: the equinox and the alignment of the pyramids”