Brooklynites may want to guard their urban chickens this evening, as there could be pagans afoot looking for fat animals to ritually slaughter.
That's because New York is on the precipice of the 2012 "Manhattan Solstice," aka Manhattanhenge, a twice-yearly event in which the evening sun sears the eyes and throttles the brains of us puny mortals. The weather forecast includes the possibility of impending thunderstorms, but if the skies do grow foul tonight the "solstice" will throw down once more tomorrow (when there's another chance of storms... go figure) before vanishing to prepare for its next appearance, on July 11.
What exactly is happening today? Certainly not a summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere – that's arriving on June 20. Rather, New York is experiencing a rare moment when its motley jungle of buildings won't block off one of nature's grandest spectacles, the sunset.
Beginning around 7:45 p.m., the sun will descend in such a way that it will be visible to anybody on an east-west cross street, all the way down to the New Jersey horizon. By 8:17, if clouds don't interfere, it will look like everything is engulfed in fire. Think of the sun's performance tonight like a successful field-goal kick, falling with surgical precision between the city-grid's "goalposts" to win the game for nature.
On the spectrum of urban henges throughout the world, New York City's rates way up there. Neil deGrasse Tyson, internet meme and everyone's favorite astrophysicist, explains why in this knowledge bomb:
Note that any city crossed by a rectangular grid can identify days where the setting Sun aligns with their streets. But a closer look at such cities around the world shows them to be less than ideal for this purpose. Beyond the grid you need a clear view to the horizon, as Manhattan has across the Hudson River to New Jersey. And tall buildings that line the streets create a vertical channel to frame the setting Sun, creating a striking photographic opportunity.... So Manhattanhenge may just be a unique urban phenomenon in the world, if not the universe.
For the best views, try hunkering down on 14th, 34th or 42nd streets. Just don't look directly at the burning star if you value working eyeballs. And if you see people erecting one of these things in Bryant Park, you should probably walk at a brisk pace in the opposite direction.
To know what to expect today and tomorrow, here are a few Manhattanhenges of yore, beginning with NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" from July 13, 2001. Neil deGrasse Tyson took the shot standing on Park Avenue and looking down 34th Street:
The cornea-scouring view from Chelsea in 2007, by Sahadeva Hammari:
Sunset over 42nd Street on May 29, 2008, by Dave Kliman:
Top image of 2011's Manhattanhenge by Justin Kiner, who was at Tudor City Place looking down 42nd Street (that's the Chrysler Building to the right and Times Square at the end of the street).