A solstice is an astronomical event that happens twice each year when the Sun’s apparent position in the sky reaches its northernmost or southernmost extremes. The name is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun stands still in declination; that is, the apparent movement of the Sun’s path north or south comes to a stop before reversing direction.
The term solstice can also be used in a broader sense, as the date (day) when this occurs. The solstices, together with the equinoxes, are connected with the seasons. In some cultures they are considered to start or separate the seasons, while in others they fall nearer the middle.
Of the many ways in which solstice can be defined, one of the most common (and perhaps most easily understood) is by the astronomical phenomenon for which it is named, which is readily observable by anyone on Earth: a “sun-standing.”
The cause of the seasons is that the Earth’s axis of rotation is not perpendicular to its orbital plane (the flat plane made through the center of mass (barycenter) of the solar system (near or within the Sun) and the successive locations of Earth during the year), but currently makes an angle of about 23.44° (called the “obliquity of the ecliptic”), and that the axis keeps its orientation with respect to an inertial frame of reference.
As a consequence, for half the year (from around 20 March to 22 September) the northern hemisphere is inclined toward the Sun, with the maximum around 21 June, while for the other half year the southern hemisphere has this distinction, with the maximum around 21 December. The two moments when the inclination of Earth’s rotational axis has maximum effect are the solstices.
• On the equator the Sun is not overhead every day, as some people think. In fact that happens only on two days of the year, the equinoxes. The solstices are the dates that the Sun stays farthest away from the zenith, only reaching an altitude of 66.56° either to the north or the south. The only thing special about the equator is that all days of the year, solstices included, have roughly the same length of about 12 hours, so that it makes no sense to talk about summer and winter. Instead, tropical areas often have wet and dry seasons.
• The day arcs at 20° latitude. The Sun culminates at 46.56° altitude in winter and 93.44° altitude in summer. In this case an angle larger than 90° means that the culmination takes place at an altitude of 86.56° in the opposite cardinal direction. For example in the southern hemisphere, the Sun remains in the north during winter, but can reach over the zenith to the south in midsummer. Summer days are longer than winter days, but the difference is no more than two or three hours. The daily path of the Sun is steep at the horizon the whole year round, resulting in a twilight of only about one hour.
• The day arcs at 50° latitude. The winter Sun does not rise more than 16.56° above the horizon at midday, and 63.44° in summer above the same horizon direction. The difference in the length of the day between summer and winter is striking – slightly less than 8 hours at midwinter, to slightly more than 16 hours in midsummer. Likewise is the difference in direction of sunrise and sunset. Also note the steepness of the daily path of the Sun above the horizon. It is much shallower than at 20° latitude. Therefore not only is the Sun not reaching as high, it also seems not to be in a hurry to do so. But conversely this means that the Sun is not in a hurry to dip deeply below the horizon at night. At this latitude at midnight the summer sun is only 16.56° below the horizon, which means that astronomical twilight continues the whole night. This phenomenon is known as the grey nights, nights when it does not get dark enough for astronomers to do their observations. Above 60° latitude the Sun would be even closer to the horizon, only 6.56° away from it. Then civil twilight continues the whole night. This phenomenon is known as the white nights. And above 66.56° latitude, of course, one would get the midnight sun.
• The day arcs at 70° latitude. At local noon the winter Sun culminates at −3.44°, and the summer Sun at 43.44°. Said another way, during the winter the Sun does not rise above the horizon, it is the polar night. There will be still a strong twilight though. At local midnight the summer Sun culminates at 3.44°, said another way, it does not set, it is the polar day.
• The day arcs at the pole. At the time of the summer or winter solstices, the Sun is 23.44° degrees above or below the horizon respectively, irrespective of time of day. Whilst the Sun is up (during summer months) it will circle around the whole sky, appearing to stay at the same angle from the horizon, therefore the concept of day or night is meaningless. The angle of elevation will gradually change on an annual cycle, with the Sun reaching its highest point at the summer Solstice, and rising or setting at the Equinox, with extended periods of twilight lasting several days after the autumn equinox and before the spring equinox.