This Thursday marks a biannual solar event called Manhattanhenge, where the rising or setting sun aligns with the east-west grid of Manhattan streets. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson coined the term back in 2002, inspired by the famous Stonehenge site in the United Kingdom, where the sun sets in alignment with the stones every summer solstice.
Technically, “Manhattanhenge” occurs around the summer solstice, not on the solstice itself. That’s because of the orientation of Manhattan’s famous grid pattern — established by the the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 — is not perfectly aligned with the geographic north-south line; it’s rotated 29 degrees east, shifting the dates of alignment. If that alignment had been perfect, Manhattanhenge would have occurred on the equinoxes every year: the first day of spring and autumn, respectively.
(Historical side note: The goal of the 1811 plan was “a free and abundant circulation of air” to stave off disease. The right angles were also favored because “straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build.” The rigid Manhattan grid has been much-maligned over the last 200 years, but recently has come back into favor with city planners.)
This kind of alignment is not unique to Manhattan; any city with a uniform street grid will have dates where the sun aligns with those streets, including Chicago, Toronto and Montreal.
But Manhattan also boasts a clear view of the horizon, looking across the Hudson River toward New Jersey. Plus you’ve got all those tall buildings lining the streets, creating the perfect vertical frame to show the setting sun to best advantage.
Tyson has been outspoken in the past about astronomical inaccuracies in film and television. For instance, you can always spot a fake sunrise onscreen, because the sun will move up and to the left as it rises. In reality, the sun always rises up and to the right. Directors tend to film a sunset for such scenes and then just run it backwards to portray a sunrise, thinking nobody will notice. (And they’d probably get away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling astrophysicists!)
The term Manhattanhenge technically applies to the setting sun phenomenon that flanks the summer solstice, usually around May 28 and July 12, although the precise dates vary slightly year to year. A similar alignment occurs with the rising sun around the winter solstice, usually Dec. 5 and Jan. 8.
Note: This is a re-published version of an article published on Discovery News in 2012.