Amazing Places

Lahaina Noon Is the Bizarre Time of Year When Shadows Disappear

Upon first glance, you might think that the image below was photoshopped. It's real. It was taken at a very specific time of day on a very specific day of the year in the U.S. state of Hawaii. Locals refer to this twice-annual moment as "Lahaina Noon," and its effect on shadows has made this bizarre phenomenon famous.

What's Going On?

This is what happens when the sun is directly overhead in this exact location on Earth. This is known as the sun's zenith, or the Earth's subsolar point. This point is constantly moving to different locations across the globe as the Earth rotates and orbits the sun, creating the same effect.

The reason you may never have heard about this strange phenomenon before is that it only occurs in a specific area of the world: between the Tropic of Cancer at roughly 23.5 degrees north of the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn at 23.5 degrees south of the Equator. That puts the bounds of this anomaly just below the southern tip of Florida and right around the northern border of Argentina. Only locations within these bounds will ever experience this phenomenon — and even then, it'll only occur twice a year.

That means that Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that experiences this event.

At this subsolar point, the sun's rays are directly perpendicular to the Earth's surface. Since the angle between the location of the sun and any object is what casts a shadow, shadows are mostly eliminated when these angles are aligned.

In Hawaii specifically, the Bishop Museum coined the term "Lahaina Noon" in the 1990s in reference to this event. "La Haina" means "cruel sun" in the Hawaiian language, and the term also references the islands' former capital on Maui. The term is used almost exclusively in Hawaii, but the event's occurrence has become a major tourist draw for the area. An American artist named Isamu Noguchi even created a sculpture that projects a perfect ring underneath only during Lahaina Noon.

The subsolar point moves slowly westward as the Earth rotates on its axis and orbits the sun. It makes one full circle of the globe every day while undulating up and down between both of the Tropics. On the day that the subsolar point hits the Tropic of Capricorn, it marks the winter solstice. Conversely, when the point hits the tropic of Cancer, it marks the summer solstice.

The shadow of a traffic sign at Lahaina Noon.

How to See It

If you want to see this strange sight in real life, you have a slim window. The first time it occurs in Hawaii is in May and the second in July. The exact date and times vary each year, but the Bishop Museum keeps an updated chart for any longing traveler. This online map will give you the exact location and coordinates of the spot where this bizarre phenomenon is happening right now.

Ultimately, what makes this phenomenon just so perplexing is how your brain has evolved to interpret shadows around you. You use these lightless impressions to grasp scale, time of day, and even movement. When they disappear, your brain has trouble processing visual stimuli and objects seem to start floating or look photoshopped. When it comes to bizarre phenomena, our natural world can't be outpaced.

Planning a visit to the islands? Check out "Hawaii The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook" by Andrew Doughty to make the most of your trip. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Lahaina Noon

Written by Trevor English June 27, 2018

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