Ever Heard of Solar Winter?

An exploration of the positive manifestations of winter by National SnowSchool Director, Kerry McClay.

WWA National SnowSchool Director Kerry McClay on dawn patrol, photo by Rick Surber

People always look forward to the change in seasons, the new round of outdoor activities we get to spend 3-4 months (or more depending on where you are) crushing and riding and gliding and exploring.

At Winter Wildlands we, of course, are always looking forward to winter. And so are all of our partners across the snow belt. As I talk to educators across the country about their local SnowSchool programs, a sense of wintry anticipation is palpable. “I hope we have a huge snow year!” a Vermont educator exclaimed to me over the phone. “Our students are really looking forward to winter,” reported another from Colorado. 

After a historically hot summer, a snowshoe romp through the wilds of winter with a group of SnowSchool students sounds like the perfect antidote. So does quietly taking in the serenity of a frost-coated mountain meadow. Heck, even a skintrack tour-de-force through a blitzing snow storm sounds appealing. I’d take a good dose of winter right now, in any form. And it’s coming… but has it already been here, just in different form?

A Matter of Perspective: Living in the (S)Now

A mindfulness guru might suggest that such anticipatory thinking pulls us out of the moment we are in, and that we might be happier as human beings if we simply focus on embracing the present season.

With no offense intended to that sage advice, I’m going to suggest a slightly alternative interpretation: perhaps those of us who are already embracing the joy of winter, are in fact ”living in the (s)now”. That’s because one version of winter is already here.

It’s called Solar Winter, and it started a few days ago. Winter, as it turns out, is partially a matter of perspective.

Photo by Adam Clark @acpictures

The Chronology of Winter: Astronomical and Meteorological Winters

The majority of folks out there are quick to point out that winter doesn’t “technically start” until December 21, the Winter Solstice (the shortest day and longest night of the year). We celebrate that day together and cry out “Let it snow!” hoping it arrives just in time for the holidays and takes us into a stoke-worthy new year.

This is only true, however, if you are talking about Astronomical Winter. This version of winter starts on the solstice and ends on the spring equinox (when the sun aligns with earth’s equator making day and night equal in length). Some advantages here are that this definition is based on readily observable natural phenomena and has been used by humans for thousands of years. A complicating factor however is that because of the shape of earth’s elliptical orbit there is some variability in the length of the Astronomical seasons. Thus the start and end dates of Astronomical Winter can vary from year to year. 

Meteorologists, climatologists and other forecasters typically prefer a winter start and end date with less variability and thus often define it by the three contiguous cold-weather calendar months: December, January and February. This is Meteorological Winter, and it’s used for forecasting purposes as it coincides with the coldest three months of the year on average. So if your definition of summer is June, July and August, then you are using the meteorological seasons. If you are finding yourself thirsting for more information on this, check out this article from NOAA about the difference between Astronomical and Meteorological seasons.

Solar Winter

In contrast to these better known and technical definitions of winter, Solar Winter is a less common and more colloquial term. It’s most often used to describe the 12 week / 3 month period of the year when your hemisphere receives the least amount of light.

If you think about the winter solstice as our darkest day of the year, then it makes logical sense that the darkest three months of year must be the 1.5 months leading up to the solstice, and the 1.5 months immediately following the solstice. In the Northern Hemisphere this leads to a definition of Solar Winter that each year spans early November to early February.

When is Solar Winter?

One challenge with the concept of Solar Winter is figuring out when exactly it starts and ends each year. The solstice itself varies from year to year. Additionally, if you are attempting to split 365 days into four even “solar seasons”, you don’t exactly end up with whole numbers. So there’s some guess work involved in this. But let’s assume you take a common approach and claim 91 days of the year for winter. In that scenario you end up with 45 days of winter on either side of the Winter Solstice (December 21, 2022). This gives us a Solar Winter start date of November 6, 2022 and end date of February 4, 2023.

Photo by Adam Clark @acpictures

Why Do We Care?

Admittedly this definition of winter is not nearly as useful to forecasting, climatology, agriculture, winter recreation, or commerce. But on an experiential level, I find that Solar Winter appeals to my senses.

The suddenly dark evenings and the frozen-solid dirt trails this time of year always remind me that dramatic changes are underway. And even on those rare and unseasonably warm days in late November, the low angle of the sun in the sky and the fleeting minutes of daylight feel like the most dominant seasonal cue.

In those moments I seem to know on some visceral level that despite the oddly warm temperature, it’s not September and certainly not an early spring. It’s simply too dark to be those things! It’s Solar Winter and it’s a unique seasonal experience. For those of you who embrace exploring the outdoors in all seasons, perhaps you agree.

Now if you were hoping I would acquiesce to the gloom and doom of the daily news cycle and work in a fourth riff here about some type of impending and year-round post-apocalyptic Nuclear Winter, then think again. I’m not going there!

This article is an exploration of the positive manifestations of winter. Instead, to wrap up this sprawling seasonal romp, I’ll provide a short personal anecdote:

The other day I asked my nearly-three-year-old the question, “When is winter?” Her response was simple and to the point, “It’s when my birthday is!” Turns out, with a birthday in late December her answer is 100% accurate by all three of the Meteorological, Astronomical and Solaric definitions. But this also points out perhaps the most important winter interpretation of all: it’s personal!

Winter belongs to all of us. It’s Our Winter, so if you are ready for it, it’s already here for you and us. Get out there and enjoy it!

Photo by Adam Clark @acpictures

Looking for ways to celebrate all the types of good ol’ winter? Find your local SnowSchool site and sign-up to volunteer your time with students and snow! Or donate to SnowSchool using the form below so kids can continue to learn about winter and all of its fascinating features like you just did reading this essay!