Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Signs of Fall in the Cape are either dropping on your head or blinding you on the road as the days start to turn brisk.  It's a hazardous time of year.  I'm thinking someone should be handing out hardhats to protect us from this hailstorm of acorns.  I haven't been hit yet, but there have been some close calls, and it's only a matter of time.  As I'm sitting here writing, I can hear them thudding on my roof and driveway.  Anyone suffering from PTSD would have gone off the deep end by now.

Fall begins this year on September 22nd - today.  Specifically, we pass from summer to fall at 11:09 PM tonight when the plane of the Earth's orbit around the sun (the ecliptic) intersects the plane of the Earth's equator for the second time in its yearly loop.  We call these two yearly intersections the vernal (spring) and autumnal (fall) equinoxes (equinox meaning literally "equal night" or equal daytime and nighttime).  The starts of summer and winter are marked by solstices (from Latin sol - "sun", stices - "stands" - or when the sun appears to stand still in the sky after it's reached its furthest point north or south).

Celestial Diagram of the Seasons

So back to being blinded on the road in the Cape in fall... We're coming up on the worst days of Blue Ridge Blindness that hit twice a year in fall and late winter.  As the location of the sunrise shifts south to north and back again during the year, there are points where the sun, low in the sky just after sunrise, lines up perfectly with Blue Ridge Dr. and makes it impossible to see driving eastbound as you approach and pass Cape Elementary.  This also happens with the sunset driving westbound a couple of months before and after the worst of the sunrise times, but it doesn't seem as severe as the mornings.

I commented once to a friend that Blue Ridge Drive is like the Stonehenge of Cape St. Claire.  As most of you know, Stonehenge was laid out thousands of years ago in what is now England in such a way that the sun rose through a certain stone window on the first days of summer and winter (the solstices).  It was a ceremonial location for the ancients, and their lives and beliefs were integrally tied to the changes in seasons.

Sunrise at Stonehenge

In the Cape, Blue Ridge Dr. (the part that runs by Cape Elementary) is my celestial harbinger of seasonal change - in this case, the equinoxes.  There are other roads in the interior of the Cape that run true East and West and line up with the sunrise and sunset on the actual equinoxes, but these are almost all tree-lined and protected from the blinding morning and evening glare, and they are also less traveled.  Blue Ridge, a main Cape artery which runs slightly askew of true East-West, is wide open as you pass by Cape Elementary, and on the dates when the sunrise aligns with it, you are driving on pure blind faith for a good couple of hundred yards.

I found this really cool utility online called The Photographer's Ephemeris that was designed to aid photographers in establishing lighting conditions for photo shoots.  For those of you who work for NASA, you will recognize the word "ephemeris" which is a table of coordinates over time for a given celestial body or satellite.  The program shows the time and position of sunrises and sunsets superimposed on a map for a given location and date.  

I downloaded the free utility (also available as an App for iPhone and Droid) from  It's really easy to use and was just what I was looking for to help me illustrate the seasonal phenomenon of Blue Ridge Blindness.  Below are snapshots of the sunrise (yellow) and sunset (orange) lines for four different dates superimposed on a map of Cape St. Claire zoomed in to Blue Ridge Dr. (Blue Ridge is labelled just below and right of the red pin)  The shots also show moonrise and moonset (don't think it's possible to turn those off - just disregard the blue lines).  

The first picture date is for today, September 22, 2010, the first day of Fall.  You can see how the sunrise and sunset lines lie almost directly due East/West (the moonrise and moonset lines coincidentally fall almost directly on top of them so they don't look exactly yellow and orange).  The second and third snapshots are each a week further in the future showing the progression of the sunrise and sunset lines.   You'll notice the sunrise line getting closer in alignment with the Blue Ridge section that runs past the elementary school.  The fourth picture is for October 12th, 2010, the date which appears to me to be the peak day this fall for eastbound Blue Ridge Blindness - the day when the sunrise line directly aligns with Blue Ridge.  

September 22, 2010 - First Day of Fall

September 29, 2010

October 6, 2010

October 12, 2010 - Full On Blue Ridge Blindness

Like I said, the sunset can also be a problem on Blue Ridge, but it's the morning that always seems to give me more trouble.  The sunset lines up with the stretch of Blue Ridge that runs past the elementary school in August and April, I believe, and I'm usually tucked away safely at home by that time of day.  The other time of year that the morning sun will again align with Blue Ridge is in late February.  My date for maximum blinding may be off a little since it's not at its worst right at sunrise.  The sun has to be up in the sky a little to clear the trees.  You can play around with The Photographer's Ephemeris yourself if you're a dweeb like me and want to check out.

Laika and I took a spin around the Cape this AM looking for some good sunrise shots, and came back with these (if anyone saw a disheveled woman in her PJs and slippers at the Little Magothy pier, it wasn't a crazy lady - or maybe it was, but she doesn't pose a threat).  The Little Magothy is the Cape's best eastern exposure.  I think I have my photo for the Cape Calendar Photo Contest!

Sunrise over the Little Magothy

Laika Admiring the Sunrise

I guess there's nothing that can be done to counteract this biannual hazard.  It's a feature of Cape life that will never change as long as Blue Ridge Drive exists and the sun keeps rising.  The best we can do is be extra careful driving during these periods knowing that they will pass as the seasons change like so many other things in life.  As B(lind)-Day approaches, everyone take your time on Blue Ridge in the mornings as our kids are getting to school and our neighbors are getting to work.  And if you like, say a little Pagan prayer to the ancient gods in thanks for the bounty of the season behind us and for comfort through the cold season ahead - marked by our very own Capehenge.

For a good laugh, watch this classic Spinal Tap Stonehenge clip (beware a couple of F-bombs if you have little ones around). Jump to 2:07 to see the 18 inch Stonehenge descend from the ceiling. It never gets old...:

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