Autumn Equinox: The Science Behind the First Day of Fall

Smileus/iStock via Getty Images
Smileus/iStock via Getty Images

Today, September 23, the whole world will experience a day and night of equal length when the sun shines directly over the equator—the midpoint of Earth. (For 2019, this moment will happen at 3:50 a.m. ET.) In the Northern Hemisphere, we call this the fall or autumn equinox, and it marks the first day of fall. Around the world, people celebrate the day with ceremonies, some of them ancient, and some less so.

You might be wondering two things. Why on almost every other day of the year (the vernal or spring equinox being the exception) do different parts of the world have days and nights of differing length? And, what do they call the fall equinox in the Southern Hemisphere?

How the Fall Equinox Works

Sunlight on yellow fall foliage
allou/iStock via Getty Images

The answer to each of these questions resides in Earth's axial tilt. The easiest way to imagine that tilt is to think about tanning on the beach. (Stay with me here.) If you lay on your stomach, your back gets blasted by the sun. You don't wait 30 minutes then flop over and call it a day. Rather, as you tan, every once in a while, you shift positions a little. Maybe you lay a bit more on one side. Maybe you lift a shoulder, move a leg. Why? Because you want the sun to shine directly on a different part of you. You want an even tan.

It might seem a little silly when you think about it. The sun is a giant fusion reactor 93 million miles away. Solar radiation is hitting your entire back and arms and legs and so on whether or not you adjust your shoulder just so. But you adjust, and it really does improve your tan, and you know this instinctively.

Earth works a lot like that, except it's operating by physics, not instinct. If there were no tilt, only one line of latitude would ever receive the most direct blast of sunlight: the equator. As Earth revolved around the sun, the planet would be bathed in sunlight, but it would only be the equator that would always get the most direct hit (and the darkest tan). But Earth does have a tilt. Shove a pole through the planet with one end sticking out the North Pole and one end sticking out the South, and angle the whole thing by 23.5°. That's the grade of Earth's tilt.

Now spin our little skewered Earth and place it in orbit around the sun. At various points in the orbit, the sun will shine directly on different latitudes. It will shine directly on the equator twice in a complete orbit—the spring and fall equinoxes—and at various points in the year, the most direct blast of sunlight will slide up or down. The highest latitude receiving direct sunlight is called the Tropic of Cancer. The lowest point is the Tropic of Capricorn. The poles, you will note, are snow white. They have, if you will, a terrible tan—and that's because they never receive solar radiation from a directly overhead sun (even during the long polar summer, when the sun never sinks below the horizon).

When does fall begin?

Sunlight on golden fall foliage
Kesu01/iStock via Getty Images

The seasons have nothing to do with Earth's distance from the sun. Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons. The sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer (66.5° latitude in the Northern Hemisphere) on June 21 or 22. When that occurs, the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer solstice. The days grow long and hot. As the year elapses, the days slowly get shorter and cooler as summer gives way to autumn. On September 21 or 22, the sun's direct light has reached the equator. Days and night reach parity, and because the sun is hitting the whole world head-on, every latitude experiences this simultaneously.

On December 21 or 22, the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning the Northern Hemisphere is receiving the least sunlight it will get all year. The Northern Hemisphere is therefore in winter solstice. Our days are short and nights are long. Parity will again be reached on March 21 or 22, the vernal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole process will repeat itself.

Now reverse all of this for the Southern Hemisphere. When we're at autumnal equinox, they're at vernal equinox. Happy first day of spring, Southern Hemisphere!

And welcome to fall, Northern Hemisphere! Enjoy this long day of sunlight, because dark days are ahead. You'll get less and less light until the winter solstice, and the days will grow colder. Take solace, though, in knowing that the whole world is experiencing the very same thing. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to get ready to spend some time at the beach.

This story first ran in 2016.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
Triple7Deals

This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

Buy it: $20 for four (50 percent off)

2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

A woman putting on a protective mask.
BetaFresh

You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

Buy it: $50 for 10 (50 percent off)

3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

Woman wearing a three-ply protective mask.
XtremeTime

These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

Buy it: $13 for 10 (50 percent off)

4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

A batch of disposable masks.
Odash, Inc.

If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

Buy it: $44 for 50 (41 percent off)

5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

Polyester protective masks.
Triple7Deals

These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

Buy it: $22 for five (56 percent off)

6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

Protective mask case.
Triple7Deals

You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

Buy it: $15 for three (50 percent off)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Tear Gas vs. Pepper Spray: What’s the Difference?

This is probably pepper spray.
This is probably pepper spray.
Siberian Photographer/iStock via Getty Images

Pepper spray and tear gas are both non-lethal irritants that cause extreme burning of the eyes, nose, and throat—but there are a few key differences between the two substances.

For one, they’re created from different chemicals. According to biohazard remediation company Aftermath, the active ingredient in pepper spray is oleoresin capsicum, which comes from the compound that makes hot peppers so hot: capsaicin. If you’ve ever accidentally rubbed your eyes after chopping a chili pepper, you’ve gotten a very tiny taste of what it’s like to be sprayed with pepper spray. Tear gas, on the other hand, contains 0-Chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile (CS), 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (CN), or a similar artificial chemical. At room temperature, both of those chemicals are powdery solids, not gases—they’re mixed with liquids or gases so they can be dispersed in the air.

Delivery methods differ, too. Pepper spray often comes in an aerosol can, which shoots it in a stream, a mist, or some other relatively direct path (though it’s also available as a gel or foam). As the Berkeley Science Review explains, tear gas is mainly dispersed with a grenade, which releases the substance over a wide area when it explodes. Since the grenades can cover so much ground, law enforcement officers are more likely to use tear gas to try to break up a crowd, and civilians are more likely to carry pepper spray as a personal safety measure.

The immediate effects of the two substances are similar—burning sensation in mucous membranes, rise in blood pressure, difficulty breathing, runny nose, etc.—but tear gas can also cause nausea and vomiting in higher concentrations.

For more on tear gas, including what to do if you’re exposed to it, head here.

[h/t Aftermath]