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Equinox: Equal Day and Night, Almost

"Equinox" literally means "equal night", giving the impression that the night and day on the equinox are exactly the same length; 12 hours each. But this isn't entirely accurate.

Equinox and solstice illustration.

Equinoxes and solstices happen twice a year.

Equinoxes and solstices mark the start of astronomical seasons. The equinoxes start spring and fall, while solstices start astronomical summer and winter.

Even if the name suggests it and it is widely accepted, it is not entirely true that day and night are exactly equal on the equinox – only nearly.

What Is an Equinox?

Earth spins around its own axis approximately every 24 hours (a sidereal day is 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4 seconds).

The time it takes Earth to orbit once around the Sun is around 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds (365.242189 days). And, like two spinning tops connected at the tips, it also wobbles around on its axis, making a complete rotation every 26,000 years (axial precession).

Earth is actually tilted at an angle of around 23.4 degrees toward the celestial pole, which is a certain point in the sky. As Earth makes its yearly orbit, 1 hemisphere faces the sun more than the other, the side that has summer.

On any other day of the year, the Earth's axis also tilts a little away from or towards the Sun. However, the equinoxes marks the exact moment twice a year when the Earth's axis is not tilted toward or away from the Sun at all. However, the axial tilt of around 23.4 degrees, remains the same.

Latitude Determines Day Length

Even if day and night aren’t exactly equal on the day of the equinox, there are days when day and night are both very close to 12 hours.

 Approx date of "Equal Day & Night"
LatitudeMarchSeptember
60° NorthMar 18Sep 25
55° NorthMar 17Sep 25
50° NorthMar 17Sep 25
45° NorthMar 17Sep 25
40° NorthMar 17Sep 26
35° NorthMar 16Sep 26
30° NorthMar 16Sep 27
25° NorthMar 15Sep 27
20° NorthMar 14Sep 28
15° NorthMar 12Sep 30
10° NorthMar 8Oct 4
5° NorthFeb 24Oct 17
EquatorNo equal day and night
5° SouthApr 14Aug 29
10° SouthApr 1Sep 10
15° SouthMar 28Sep 14
20° SouthMar 26Sep 16
25° SouthMar 25Sep 17
30° SouthMar 24Sep 18
35° SouthMar 24Sep 19
40° SouthMar 23Sep 19
45° SouthMar 23Sep 19
50° SouthMar 23Sep 20
55° SouthMar 23Sep 20
60° SouthMar 22Sep 20

However, this date depends on the latitude, and can vary by as much as several weeks from place to place. The table shows approximate dates for when day and night are as similar as possible according to latitude.

More Than 12 Hours

On the equator, the day and night stay approximately the same length all year round, but the day will always appear a little longer than 12 hours, due to the reasons below.

On the equinoxes, the geometric center of the sun is above the horizon for 12 hours, and you might think that the length of the day (hours of daylight) would be 12 hours too.

However, ‘sunrise’ is defined as the moment the upper edge of the sun's disk becomes visible above the horizon – not when the center of the sun is visible. In the same sense, ‘sunset’ refers to the moment the Sun's upper edge, not the center, disappears below the horizon. The time it takes for the sun to fully rise and set, which is several minutes, is added to the day and subtracted from the night, and therefore the equinox day lasts a little longer than 12 hours.

Refraction: Light Lingers

Another reason why the day is longer than 12 hours on an equinox is that the Earth's atmosphere refracts, sunlight.

This refraction, or bending of the light, causes the Sun’s upper edge to be visible from Earth several minutes before the edge actually reaches the horizon. The same thing happens at sunset, when you can see the sun for several minutes after it has actually dipped under the horizon. This causes every day on Earth – including the days of the equinoxes – to be at least 6 minutes longer than it would have been without this refraction.

The extent of refraction depends on atmospheric pressure and temperature. Our calculations in the Sunrise and Sunset Calculator assumes the standard atmospheric pressure of 101.325 kilopascal and temperature of 15°C or 59°F.

Topics: Astronomy, Seasons, March, September, Equinox, Sun

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