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The Sun Rises in the East…Right?

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Some of the lessons we are learn in orienteering are taught over and over again. The North Star will show us where north is. If the Big Dipper is in the sky, we can find the North Star. If the Big Dipper is not in the sky, we can use Cassiopeia to find the North Star. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

But does the sun rise in the east? Of course, you say. What kind of idiot would question that scientific fact?

Have you ever noticed that as the seasons change, the sun seems to move a little on the horizon? Maybe not. But the Earth is tilted on its axis about 23½ degrees and the orbit of the Earth around the sun is elliptical. These factors effect the apparent position of the sun in the sky. On the Equinox in March and September the sun does rise in the east. At all other times it is slightly north or south of east. At the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice in June and December, the sun is significantly shifted from due east. How far? Paste the address below into your browser or click the related link below to see.

Sun Rises in the East

"Although the rising sun may seem to occur at approximately the same azimuth when observed from day to day, a longer term observational project will reveal this to be far from the truth. In fact, if we were to mentally note the azimuth of the rising sun around summer solstice in June and repeat this exercise around winter solstice in December, we will note that the sun has shifted by approximately 65° during the intervening six months!

This "moving target" involving the rising (or setting) sun is due to the elliptical nature of our planet's orbit around the sun which is responsible for the variable arrival of the sun on the local meridian by up to 16 minutes early or late... and the variable altitude due to earth's tilt in its axis of rotation (23.45°) relative to its orbital plane."

Image and commentary by Anthony Ayiomamitis.

This picture is really three "overlaid" pictures taken by Anthony Ayiomamitis in Greece. He took one picture of sunrise at the Winter Solstice, one at the Equinox and one at the Summer Solstice. You can see there is a significant change in the position of the sun depending on the season.

So now we know the sun rises in an easterly direction. If you’re lost and have no additional information, following the morning sun will take you toward the east. If you can factor in the above information, it might make your directions a little more exact.


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