Welcome to Groundhog Days! We’re entering the second of eight outdoor seasons this year – Groundhog Days are that period where it’s still winter-cold, but the skies are brightening. This combo means ideal conditions for winter camping, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, etc. – Cold, brisk winter weather, snow, but with lengthening afternoons that actually give you time to lay tracks and get camp set up.
Hours of Daylight (Orange, Grey), and Average Temperature (Blue) – Scaled to show temporal relationship over a year.
I’m not the first to talk about 8 seasons, but I’m definitely an adopter. As you may have discerned here, my variation on the regular big-4 maintains focus on weather and temperature, but adds a consideration of LIGHT.
In our society of artificial light, the movements of the Sun don’t seem to be as important as they once were, and programs like Daylight Savings Time further confuse our inner clocks. But for those of us who spend time outdoors, knowledge of sunrise and sunset times, and locations, is critical knowledge. So it makes sense (to me), that daylight also drives our seasonal planning. For example, the season we’re entering, which I’ve dubbed “Groundhog Days”, is just as bright as October, though much colder and conducive to winter activities. Similarly, November is typically a fairly temperate month, but it gets dark really early and finds you racing daylight on a regular basis.
Daylight hours are extremely regular and predictable, with minima and maxima defined by the winter and summer solstices. In between, the length of the day (daylight hours) changes smoothly and regularly.
Our classic seasons, anchored by the Sun, but centered on temperature. Winter (Blue) captures peak cold, while Summer (Pink) surrounds the period of maximum warmth.
Our regular seasons, though, are all about weather and temperature, and lag the power of the sun by about 6 weeks. That’s why winter STARTS on the darkest day of the year. Weather, of course, is not a smooth predictable phenomenon, day after day, but the trends (cold in winter, wet in spring, hot in summer, etc), and the response of nature and all its inhabitants, are regular enough to build a calendar around. IF we were to smooth out the bumps and look at average daytime temperatures as a sine wave, like we look at daylight, we would see it follows the sun closely, just pushed “right” by 6 weeks. Here on Feb 4 (ish), we are at mid-winter, and theoretically should be at our coldest point in the year.
The same calendar, with seasons focused on sunlight. Bright (Yellow) is centered on the Summer Solstice, with boundaries corresponding (at my location) to 14 hours of daylight or more. Dark (Grey) is centered on the Winter Solstice and captures the period with less than 10.5 hours of daylight.
So, if you look at 4 seasons defined by temperatures, and another 4 defined by light, and then overlay the two, you get 8 seasons of roughly 6.5 weeks each, still anchored by the equinoxes, and solstices. At my latitude, those “extra” days conveniently line up with the days we see only 10.5 hours of daylight on the way to and from a minimum, and 14 hours near max. The magnitude of your peaks will vary, based on latitude – and of course, your temperature excursions follow the same pattern (with the tropics having very “flat” curves in both light and temperature, for example).
Both models overlay to reveal 8 distinct seasons! Combining temperature and daylight reveals the different character of Spring and Fall (differences in Sunlight prevent them from being mirror-image shoulder seasons), among other things.
Given all this, these are the 8 seasons around my place (Northern Hemisphere, mid-Latitudes):
Deep Winter (Dec 21-Feb 4) – The combined low points of both light and temperature. Cold, dark, long nights – good time to be hunkered down by the fire with loved ones enjoying the winter Holiday season.
Groundhog Days (Feb 4-Mar 21) – Great winter fun. Cold and snowy, but with lengthening days and bright sun. Get out and do some skiing, winter camping, etc.
Spring (Mar 21-May 4) – Life is popping everywhere. Warming temps, and bright skies – but with occasional wet and windy periods.
Bright Spring (May 4-June 21) – One of the best times all year to get outdoors. Temps are still moderate, but you’re enjoying the longest days of the year!!
High Summer (June 21-Aug 4) – Long days persist, but it’s getting pretty hot out there. This season combines the maxima for both light and temperature.
Dog Days (Aug 4-Sept 21) – The summer heat continues, but the Sun is slipping away. Earlier sunsets start to trigger signs of fall, even though it’s still summer, and it’s still hot.
Fall (Sept 21-Nov 4) – Color in the leaves, early sunsets, an occasional nip in the air, and harvest time. Classic autumn.
Dark Fall (Nov 4-Dec 21) – Temps are still moderate with an occasional brisk day, but it’s absolutely just as dark as it is in Deep Winter. This is the last gasp of the year – enjoy time outside without freezing, but plan for short days.
So, I’m not suggesting we change the Kindergarten curriculum or anything – but I AM suggesting that daylight ought to be part of your planning and enjoyment of the outdoors. If you’re equipped to deal with the cold, the season we’re entering now is a great one for winter fun! And if your trip planning makes you choose between May and August, realize that while temps are different (spring vs. summer), your days are going to be significantly longer in May. Either way, don’t discount the Sun as a major factor in making your trip a great one!
Get Out There!