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Something Wild: What Does the Vernal Equinox Do?


March 20th marks the Vernal Equinox.  It's one of two points on our calendar when day and night are of equal length. More or less. It may be more of a convenient handle we put on an arbitrary point on our annual revolution around the sun, but it is significant in that it marks the point in the year where we start seeing more daylight than darkness.  So with the days growing longer, this is a great time to talk about photoperiod.

Photoperiod is the amount of time in a twenty-four hour period that we are exposed to light.  Why do we even need a word for such a thing?  Because changing photoperiods trigger a lot of changes.  In birds, mammals and most other animals, darkness triggers a release of melatonin - so the waning of darkness ratchets down the amount of melatonin that is produced.  

Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR
This chart tracks the hours of sunlight across the Northern Hemisphere over the course of the year. The 44th parallel runs through the vertical center of New Hampshire, roughly around Lake Winnepesaukee. (Click to enlarge.)

It's similar for plants, though not in March because they're not measuring light with their leaves.  In late summer, plants use phytochrome, a pigment plants use to detect light.  Phytochrome triggers hormones that let plants prepare, harden off their buds, start to lose their leaves... you know, plant stuff.

Credit Putneypics via Flickr
Canada Geese Head North

In animals it rouses dormant species from hibernation, it calls the migratory birds to head north again, and it plays a big role in the timing of the breeding season.  Day length effects all animals - including humans.  You probably notice changes in your own behavior.  Perhaps you're more energetic when the days are longer and sleepier when the days are shorter.  You have photoperiod to thank for that.

It may be something of an arbitrary point on the solar calendar, but the equinox is a harbinger of real change.

Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR / Source photo: NASA GOES
Source photo: NASA GOES
The degree of tilt to the Earth's axis in relation to the Sun changes over the course of the year. It is closest to parallel at the equinoxes, making for days most evenly divided between day and night.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Senior Director of Education for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, where he has worked for over 30 years. He is responsible for the design and delivery of conservation-related outreach education programs including field trips, tours and presentations to Forest Society members, conservation partners, and the general public.
Chris Martin has worked for New Hampshire Audubon for over 31 years as a Conservation Biologist, specializing in birds of prey such as Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons.
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