Ty Swenson
Solstice Park, West Seattle: Alice Enevoldsen (right) has volunteers act as sun and moon to explain the science behind the Dec. 21 winter solstice, the shortest day of the year for the northern hemisphere. The sun set at 4:20 p.m. in Seattle. CLICK THE PICTURE ABOVE FOR MORE IMAGES.

SLIDESHOW: West Seattle’s Solstice Park becomes an astronomical classroom for winter solstice

Tuesday, Dec. 21 was the shortest day of the year in Seattle, with a sunset at 4:20 p.m. and the sun setting a mere 19 degrees above the horizon. It also marked the first official day of winter.

A crowd of 20 astronomical enthusiasts gathered at Solstice Park at 7400 Fauntleroy Way s.w. with hopes of viewing the sunset while learning the science behind winter solstice from West Seattleite Alice Enevoldsen, planetarium specialist for the Pacific Science Center and NASA Solar System Ambassador.

Enevoldsen brought along her globe and, with the aid of a few observers acting as the sun and the earth, explained the event and how Solstice Park can be used to observe sunsets for the winter and summer solstice and spring and autumn equinox.

“The solstice is a very specific point in the earth’s orbit around the sun and it is the point where the earth’s North Pole is pointed as directly away from the sun as it ever gets,” Enevoldsen said. “This gives us the shortest day of the year, and for the southern hemisphere it is the opposite. They’re having their summer solstice at the same time,” (and also their longest day of the year).

Enevoldsen said that Solstice Park is ideal for watching sunsets for all of the solstice and equinox events, although in the two years since she discovered the park (which was built in July 2005), the weather has yet to cooperate and she hasn’t been able to catch a special sunset from the observation feature.

“This is like a mini-Stonehenge,” she said.

Looking west towards Puget Sound, the park has three stones placed as markers for the four astronomical events (winter solstice to the left, both autumn and spring equinox’s in the middle and summer solstice to the right). To the east of the stones are earthwork mounds with three paths carved out to line up with the stones. Enevoldsen said observers should walk to the east end of those paths and look to the stones. At the predicted time, the sun will set directly over its corresponding stone.

Shortly after midnight on Dec. 21 there was also a lunar eclipse (captured by Herald reporter/photographer Steve Shay here).

“We did have a lunar eclipse this morning, which was just a cool coincidence of astronomical events,” she said. “We’re at a very special point in our orbit and the moon was in its special place in its orbit where it lines up perfectly for an eclipse. So those both happened within the same 24 hour period.”

“We’ve got about ten minutes until the sunset … anybody seen the sun?” Enevoldsen joked with the crowd.

Everyone kept an eye on the skyline as 4:20 came and went, hoping for the slightest cloud break, allowing the significant sunset to peer through.

It didn’t, but that didn’t stop everyone from clapping and cheering, ushering in the official start of winter.

Enevoldsen wrote on her website (www.alicesastroinfo.com) that her “calling in life was actually to work in museums and be a translator for scientists,” rather than working behind the scenes as a scientist. She has taken the role to heart, volunteering her time as a NASA ambassador, which requires her to host four events a year, and doing planetarium shows at the Pacific Science Center.

She plans to continue hosting solstice and equinox events just like this one into the future, and you can get more information at her website, www.alicesastroinfo.com.

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.