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The sun strikes earth at a fairly acute angle during our northern winters offering little light and even less heat. Keith Corliss

SAD sufferers look forward to longer days

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SAD sufferers look forward to longer days
Fargo North Dakota 101 5th Street North 58102

According to the Farmer's Almanac, the sun rose today in West Fargo at 8:11, a minute later than it did on December 21, the shortest day of calendar year 2008. Wait a minute, you say, the days are supposed to be getting longer. They are. Today's sun is shining 15 minutes more than the winter solstice. But it's doing it with later sunsets, not earlier sunrises at the moment. According to WDAY meteorologist, Daryl Ritchison, this is due to something called the Equation of Time, a somewhat complex concept I won't address here.

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I first heard of the notion of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) just a few years ago. Finally I had an excuse for my preoccupation with, and thirst for, sunlight. Also called "winter blues," it's a mood disorder which supposedly affects many people during the winter months due to a shortage of light. Sufferers, according to the National Library of Medicine, "may sleep too much, have little energy, and crave sweets and starchy foods." It couldn't be more accurate.

I know of no study which breaks down SAD statistics to occupation. Ritchison told me he doesn't know any meteorologist victims, so apparently it's not an issue for them. But among my aviation cohorts this is surprisingly common. I find I'm not the only pilot who daily checks the sun tables and treats the winter solstice as a day for celebration. After all, it represents the start of six glorious months of ever lengthening days. For us it's the highlight of the year.

High Flight, perhaps the most famous aviation poem by John Gillespie Magee Jr., pays homage to the inherent value of the sun: "Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds..." One of my favorite radio talk show hosts out of the Twin Cities even goes so far as to declare December 21 - or whatever day the solstice happens to fall upon - the first day of spring.

That "sleep too much" line really hits home. I'm convinced there is some primordial urge to hibernate along with the critters this time of year. Four hours of sleep seems almost normal during the height of summer, but I could comfortably slumber away twelve hours a night this time of year.

Theoretically, every spot on earth gets equal amounts of sunlight during a calendar year, cloudiness notwithstanding. This is little comfort to the few folks currently above the Arctic Circle who are enduring "days" of total darkness. They make up for it in summer with a never-setting sun. I wonder if the residents feel satisfied with this arrangement. Somehow I doubt it.

The animals, for the most part, are smarter than we are. The great majority of birds we see during the spring and summer months are well to our south enjoying longer sun exposure. Some animals are hibernating. I'd call these the wise ones. Others venture out of dens and burrows only long enough to grab a bite to eat. The rest are tough critters. Tree squirrels, jackrabbits, martens, woodpeckers, and deer are among the beasts choosing for whatever reason to ride out the winter with steely resolve.

Arizona, Texas and Florida are peppered with folks from our area during the winter months. We call them snowbirds. Are they truly escaping the cold or are they fleeing to lower latitudes in a simple quest for sunlight? I wonder.

An upright fist extended at arm's length very crudely measures 10 vertical degrees give or take. At its maximum altitude on the 21st of December, the sun was about two fists above the horizon at 19.5 degrees. Today it's close to 21 degrees. Still two fists worth with very little noticeable change, but a heartening change anyway. And it's in the right direction.

But take heart all you bearers of SAD and anyone else simply anxious for longer days. The march is on for the summer solstice, June 21 this year. On that day the sun will reach its maximum altitude of about 67 degrees and we will savor nearly 16 full hours of daylight. Until then, we'll just have to grind it out.

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