Twice a year, during the Spring and Fall Equinoxes, the rising and setting suns align with Chicago’s east-west street grid, creating spectacular photo opportunities with the sun framing Chicago’s skyline. The autumn equinox falls on Thursday.

Look west just before sunset, according to Michelle Nichols, master of pedagogy at the Adler Planetarium. The effect is visible for about a week before and after the equinox. And if you miss it, wait another six months for the next one. The Spring Equinox falls on Monday, March 20, 2023.

The places on the horizon where the sun rises and sets change all year round. They crawl north to the day with the longest sunshine (summer solstice) and then south to the day with the shortest sunshine (winter solstice). The cycle repeats itself every year.

This apparent movement of the Sun occurs because the Earth is tilted on its axis, and as the Earth moves in its orbit, one hemisphere is tilted towards or away from the Sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, the North Pole tilts towards the sun in spring and summer, and from it in fall and winter.

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During the Spring and Fall Equinoxes, the sun shines evenly in both hemispheres, rising and setting directly east and west. Since Chicago’s street grid corresponds almost exactly to the compass points, the rising and setting suns of the equinox align with the street grid, surrounding them between the city’s buildings.

The rigid east-west city grid means almost every east-west street works, but the best street would be without a lot of obstruction. Loop skyscrapers offer some of the best framing opportunities.

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According to Shane Larson, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium and a professor at Northwestern University, the line is called Stonehenge, a formation of massive stones erected more than 4,000 years ago. On certain days, the rising and setting sun coincides with the stones, prompting some scientists to suggest that Stonehenge may have been an observatory or an astronomical calendar.

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Each grid city may have at least a few days a year when the sun will align with the grid of streets. One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is the “Manhattanhenge” in New York. Because the Manhattan street grid is about 30 degrees from the compass points, the dates on which the phenomenon is visible do not correspond to the equinoxes. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote about Manhattanhenge for the American Museum of Natural History.

Sources: Michelle Nichols, Principal Educator at the Adler Planetarium; American Museum of Natural History

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