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Washington / Oregon Coast Astronomy Fun: Groundhog Day, 'Da Vinci Glow'

Published 2/01/24 at 5:49 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Oregon Coast) – February is about to get a little ethereal in the skies above the Oregon coast and Washington coast, starting with the astronomical significance of a simple and rather silly day tomorrow: Groundhog Day. (Photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection: a planetary conjunction at Manzanita)

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Jim Todd, astronomy expert with Portland's OMSI, said Friday, February 2 is Groundhog Day, a seemingly silly and popular holiday that is also an event that marks movement in the skies above us and of the Earth itself.

“ It is near the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and its midpoint is a seasonal marker reminding us that spring will return once more,” he said.

Groundhog Day comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that says if a groundhog emerges from its burrow on that day and glimpses its own shadow because the sun is out, that means we're in for six more weeks of winter and the little furry beastie goes back down to hide in his den. If it's cloudy out and the wee critter doesn't see its shadow, then spring should come early.

You'll get more scientific accuracy with the time travel idea behind the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.

Above Manzanita - Oregon Coast Beach Connection

There are no groundhogs on the Oregon or Washington coast, but the Oregon Zoo in Portland gets into it with Filbert the Beaver.

In terms of astronomy, the day is one of eight major seasonal subdivisions each year.

“They include the March and September equinoxes, the June and December solstices, and the intervening four cross-quarter days,” Todd said.

Aside from Groundhog Day, the other three cross-quarter days are May Day (May 1), Lammas (August 1), and Halloween (October 31).

Todd said this marking within the calendar year and our trip around the sun got its start with the Celts who called it Imbolc or lambs’ milk as lambing season had just begun by February 2. At one point, the Celts also referred to it as Brigantia, named after their female deity of light. This reminded them that the Sun was halfway on its journey to the spring equinox.

Later on, the Christians called it Candlemas, after all the candles that were lit in churches that day to honor the Christ Child.

When the Germans began immigrating to the U.S. and Pennsylvania in the 1880s, the Candlemas holiday and the use of badgers to suss out the spring came with them. However, there were no badgers here so groundhogs were used instead.

There are no meteor showers coming up in the skies above the Washington or Oregon coast, but a very slim, new crescent moon pops up early in the month.

Then, around the middle of the month, look for “Earthshine” to illuminate the darker side of the moon, seen in the southwest just after sunset. Sometimes called Da Vinci's Glow, this is the sunlight reflected back onto the moon from the Earth's polar ice caps and clouds. Around then you'll also get to see Jupiter shining just above the crescent moon.

On Thursday, February 22, there will be a bright conjunction of Venus and Mars. On that morning, they'll be separated by only .6 of a degree. It should make quite the bright blob in the southeast skies over places like Westport, Seaside, Bandon or Pacific City.

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Comet above Bandon. Photo courtesy Manuela Durson - see Manuela Durson Fine Arts for more

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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