I’d rather talk about why we have time zones in the first place. Historically, each location on Earth had its own time, still called local time. It is defined by the sun reaching its highest point in the sky — which it does so exactly in the south. That’s called local noon. Local noon doesn’t depend on latitudes but on longitude only, hence we find time zones spread across a world map horizontally.
Local noon makes sense as it describes time conveniently at each longitude. A keen observer can be replaced by a good time piece.
The disadvantage came — big time — with the change in communication and especially transportation needs of the 19th century: train schedules didn’t just include the travel times, but they needed to accommodate the change in time depending on each destination’s longitude. The solution to that was to set up time zones, with New Zealand being the first country to do so in 1868, the United States and Canada in 1883 (by law in 1918). In 1884, 25 nations (12 American, 11 European, as well as Liberia and Japan) met for the Meridian Conference in Washington, D.C., and established Greenwich as the Prime Meridian and created 24 time zones of 15 degrees longitude each.
There are exceptions to the latter, especially concerning national and state borders. Usually these exceptions are subtle: Ogallala, Neb., is on Mountain Time while Plateau, Texas, is on Central, even though it’s two degrees farther west. Some exceptions are more extreme: all of China is on one time zone, although the country spans 60 degrees (and therefore should technically be divided into four time zones). Lublin in Poland and Santiago de Compostela in Spain are in the same time zone, even though they are 30 degrees apart. In contrast, Russia is in accordance with the meaning of the Meridian Conference, spanning 10 time zones over 160 degrees.
Alaska is on one time zone (with the exception of the Aleutians West of Umnak Island), although Ketchikan and Nome are 35 degrees apart. What that means is Southeast Alaska’s local noon occurs near 12 noon, central Alaska’s local noon is around 1 p.m. and Western Alaska’s local noon around 2 p.m. Sunrise and sunset are equally shifted, with Yakutat having both its sunrise and sunset 1.5 hours earlier than Bethel throughout the year.
Harvest moonThe harvest moon is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, and therefore occurs within two weeks before or after Sept. 22. At that time of the year the moon is in the constellations of Pisces and Aries, which stay close to the horizon when they rise in the east; hence the moon stays close to the horizon, as well.
That gives rise to a couple of phenomena. One is based on the physics of diffraction: close to the horizon, moonlight (which is reflected sunlight) has to travel through more of Earth’s atmosphere. Air, which is mostly nitrogen and oxygen molecules, scatters more of the blue part of the spectrum, leaving the moon more reddish.
The other is completely psychological: what is called the moon illusion makes the moon appear larger closer to the horizon than up in the sky (although either are of the same angular size). Even though there is no single hypothesis explaining the effect and different people may experience it differently, one such hypothesis holds that to us the moon looks farther away on the horizon than somewhere in the sky (where it is surrounded by sky) – because it is still of the same angular size. By appearing farther away, it also appears to be bigger. In other words, this is not what the moon really looks like, but it’s based on how our brains interpret what our eyes see. Good comparisons are optical illusions that fool all of us (like the same size dots where one appears larger than the other, the parallel lines that appear nonparallel, etc.).
Also, while the moon’s orbit around Earth is a nice ellipse, describing its motion and appearance relative to the horizon becomes quite complicated, because two different spherical coordinate systems are merged. One consequence is that while, on average, the moon rises 50 minutes later each night, during the fall it rises only 30 minutes later each night. Therefore twilight turns quickly into a brightly lit evening, assisting farmers to get their crops in.
Andy Veh is a physics and astronomy professor at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. E-mail your science questions to redoubtreporter @alaska.net.