Astronomically speaking, the March equinox occurs when the Sun crosses the celestial equator on its way north along the ecliptic. In the Northern Hemisphere, the March equinox is known as the vernal, or spring, equinox and marks the start of the spring season.
Weather scientists divide the year into quarters this way to make it easier to compare seasonal and monthly statistics from one year to the next. The meteorological seasons are based on annual temperature cycles rather than on the position of Earth in relation to the Sun, and they more closely follow the Gregorian calendar. Using the dates of the astronomical equinoxes and solstices for the seasons would present a statistical problem because these dates can vary slightly each year.
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Meteorologically speaking, however, in the Northern Hemisphere the official spring season always begins on March 1 and continues through May 31. Summer begins on June 1; autumn, September 1; and winter, December 1.
The word equinox is derived from the Latin words meaning “equal night.” All over the world, days and nights are approximately equal. Today, the Sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west. At the equinoxes, the tilt of Earth relative to the Sun is zero, which means that Earth’s axis neither points toward nor away from the Sun.
The vernal equinox signals the beginning of nature’s renewal in the Northern Hemisphere. Worms begin to emerge from the earth, ladybugs land on screen doors, green buds appear, birds chirp, and flowers begin to bloom.
Spring is one of the four conventional temperate seasons, following winter and preceding summer. There are various technical definitions of spring, but local usage of the term varies according to local climate, cultures and customs. When it is spring in the Northern Hemisphere, it will be autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. At the spring equinox, days are approximately 12 hours long with day length increasing as the season progresses. Spring and “springtime” refer to the season, and also to ideas of rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal, resurrection and regrowth. Subtropical and tropical areas have climates better described in terms of other seasons, e.g. dry or wet, monsoonal or cyclonic. Often the cultures have locally defined names for seasons which have little equivalence to the terms originating in Europe.
Meteorologists generally define four seasons in many climatic areas: spring, summer, autumn and winter. These are demarcated by the values of their average temperatures on a monthly basis, with each season lasting three months. The three warmest months are by definition summer, the three coldest months are winter and the intervening gaps are spring and autumn. Spring, when defined in this manner, can start on different dates in different regions. In terms of complete months, in most north temperate zone locations, spring months are March, April and May, although differences exist from country to country. Most south temperate zone locations have opposing seasons with spring in September, October and November. Swedish meteorologists define the beginning of spring as the first occasion on which the average daytime temperature exceeds zero degrees Celsius for seven consecutive days, thus the date varies with latitude and elevation.
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In the traditional Chinese calendar, the “spring” season is not equivalent to the European spring but instead consists of the end of winter and beginning of summer, roughly taking the equinox as its mid-point. Similarly, according to the Celtic tradition, which is based solely on daylight and the strength of the noon sun, spring begins in early February and continues until early May.
According to another tradition in the United States, 2 February, Candlemas, can be regarded as the start of spring if it is mild. The US spring season can also be regarded as beginning on the day after Presidents’ Day and ending on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. In Ireland spring traditionally starts on 1 February, St Brigid’s Day, although Irish meteorologists consider the whole of February to be part of winter.
The beginning of spring is not always determined by fixed calendar dates. The ecological definition of spring relates to biological indicators; the blossoming of a range of plant species, and the activities of animals, or the special smell of soil that has reached the temperature for micro flora to flourish. It therefore varies according to the climate and according to the specific weather of a particular year. Most ecologists divide the year into six seasons that have no fixed dates. In addition to spring, ecological reckoning identifies an earlier separate prevernal season between the hibernal (winter) and vernal (spring) seasons. This is a time when only the hardiest flowers like the crocus are in bloom, sometimes while there is still some snow cover on the ground.
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During spring, the axis of the Earth is increasing its tilt relative to the Sun, and the length of daylight rapidly increases for the relevant hemisphere. The hemisphere begins to warm significantly causing new plant growth to “spring forth,” giving the season its name. Snow, if a normal part of winter, begins to melt, and streams swell with runoff. Frosts, if a normal part of winter, become less severe. In climates that have no snow and rare frosts, the air and ground temperatures increase more rapidly. Many flowering plants bloom this time of year, in a long succession sometimes beginning when snow is still on the ground, continuing into early summer.
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In normally snow-less areas “spring” may begin as early as February (Northern Hemisphere) heralded by the blooming of deciduous magnolias, cherries and quince, or August (Southern Hemisphere) in the same way. Many temperate areas have a dry spring, and wet autumn (fall), which brings about flowering in this season more consistent with the need for water as well as warmth. Subarctic areas may not experience “spring” at all until May or even June.
While spring is a result of the warmth caused by the changing orientation of the Earth’s axis relative to the Sun, the weather in many parts of the world is overlain by events which appear very erratic taken on a yearly basis. The rainfall in spring follows trends more related to longer cycles or events created by ocean currents and ocean temperatures. Good and well-researched examples are the El Niño effect.