"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Last Day of Winter

For Catholics and many Protestants, today is the last day before the fasting and penance of Lent. Known variously as Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, this is a day that started as a celebration and anticipation for the joy of Easter but has lately become another commercialized excuse for bad behavior. However, what many people have forgotten is that today is also the last day of winter--or at least it should be.

A popular urban legend has it that spring does not begin until March 20 this year. In recent years, calendar makers and the mainstream media have popularized the misguided idea that the equinox is the precise moment that winter ends and spring begins even though the changing of the seasons is a natural and gradual process that cannot be exactly predicted from one year to the next.

As the name implies, March is a month of changes, so instead of an abrupt switch at March 20, evidence that the process of spring has already begun is everywhere. That process is reminiscent of the adage that March “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” The high winds and freezing cold of February are already giving way to the verdure of spring.

We now live in an age where, for the first time in the history of the world, a majority of people live in cities and are detached from nature, so it is easy to understand why this urban legend has become so popular. Worse still, we are now subjected to faux-intellectual clich├ęs such as the perennial, “it’s snowing in December but it’s not even winter yet.”

Such oxymoronic statements are evidence that the choice of any particular date for the beginning of each season is at best arbitrary. However, if we must choose a date, Ash Wednesday seems as good a choice as any, especially if we consider that the word “Lent” is derived from the old Germanic word for "spring." In the Mid-Atlantic region, this is a particularly good fit for the reasons below.

From a meteorological standpoint, the coldest and snowiest days of the year run from the first week in December to the first week in March:

1) In the Mid-Atlantic region, the average daily temperature drops to its lowest level almost exactly at the midpoint between December 1 and March 1, not at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Although temperatures are different, the midpoint of the temperature curve is similar in other regions.

2) Comparing daily temperatures for December and March, almost every Day in December is colder than the same day in March.

3) Average daily snowfall is highest in the throughout the months of December to February, not from December 20 to March 20.

From a botanical standpoint, deciduous plants start growing in late February and go into dormancy around early December:

4) The first blooms of spring--especially crocuses and daffodils--can be found in early to mid-March, or sometimes even late February, well before the vernal equinox.

5) Depending on location, the changing leaves achieve their peak color in late September through early November and start to fall very soon thereafter.

6) The average date of the last overnight frost of spring, and thus the time for planting crops ranges from mid-February in the South to mid-May in the Mountain West. Thus, the equinox is actually closer to the midpoint of spring from an agricultural standpoint.

From a cultural and historical standpoint, the season of spring has always included most or all of the month of March and possibly even February, whereas Summer is understood to begin in June, May, or even late April depending on who you ask:

7) Groundhog Day (or Candlemas) which is celebrated on February 2 is a tradition which sometimes results in a proclamation of “early spring.” Although the predictions of Punxatawney Phil and his cousins are wildly inaccurate when compared to actual weather data, the tradition is nevertheless a recognition that mild weather sometimes comes before March 1 and certainly long before the vernal equinox.

8) As mentioned above, Lent, which is derived from the Germanic root for "spring," begins between February 4 and March 10, but the average date of Ash Wednesday is on February 21.

9) Especially in the South, Easter is the first day it is considered acceptable to wear white pants, shoes, etc. which are traditionally associated with summer. The average date of Easter is on April 8.

10) Similarly, the feast of the Nativity of St. John is a popular holiday celebrated across Europe in late June which is known as midsummer, implying that spring has already ended and summer has begun long before the summer solstice.

11) The name of March comes from ancient Rome, when March was the first month of the year and named Martius after Mars, the Roman god of war. In Rome, where the climate is Mediterranean, March was the first month of spring, a logical point for the beginning of the year as well as the start of the military campaign season.

12) Data going back to 1974 indicate that retail prices for gasoline are higher on average for the months of May through September because the summer months are traditionally associated with car trips and vacations.

Finally, from a bureaucratic standpoint, no agency or body of the United States government has ever declared the solstices and the equinoxes as the “official” start and end of the seasons:

13) According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration which falls under the U.S. Department of Commerce, Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30 and thus coincides exactly with the traditional dates for summer and fall.

14) According to the Energy Information Administration which falls under the U.S. Department of Energy, the “winter heating season” runs from October 1 through March 31 and thus corresponds to the traditional dates for winter, with some extra padding on either end. The midpoint of the winter heating season is December 31.

15)The U.S. Naval Observatory which falls under the U.S. Department of Defense, provides a listing of the exact times for the equinoxes, solstices, perihelion, and aphelion which is titled “Earth’s Seasons” but does not state that these astronomical phenomena are in any way the “official” start or end of the seasons.

16) By law, Daylight Saving Time (DST) now starts on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November. Prior to 2007, when the new law went into effect, DST started on the last Sunday in April and ended on the last Sunday in October. Just as the government definition of “winter heating season” includes padding on both ends of the traditional season, so too does DST includes padding on either end of the traditional summer season. The midpoint of DST is in mid-July.

In summary, the folklore of the equinox as the first day of spring is a modern idea which did not become fashionable until very recently. The idea has been popularized in the last few decades, because the exact times of certain phenomena are variable and can only be noted after they have occurred. At the same time the dates of many phenomena such as the last frost or peak fall leaves vary across the vastness of our continent.

However, instead of relying on the false precision of the astronomical equinox, we should base our understanding of the seasons on natural phenomena that we observe around us. Indeed, at this moment here in Virginia, the first tender green leaves and pink buds are coming out on the trees and shrubberies, the grass is starting to turn green again, and chirping birds are once again heralding the arrival of sunrise. Regardless of what the calendar makers would have you believe, spring is here.

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