We are clearly in the dog days of summer now. Sunny hot day follows sunny hot day, interrupted by only the occasional late evening thunderstorm. The dog days of summer get their name from the ancient Romans, and before them, the Greeks. No, they are not called the dog days because they ‘aren’t fit for a dog’. They are called the dog days because the hottest part of the summer coincides with the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, also known as the dog star.

That's Sirius on the bottom right - just above the horizon. Sirius is the brightest start in the sky. Photo by Luis Argerich via Flickr.
That’s Sirius on the bottom right – just above the horizon. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. Photo by Luis Argerich via Flickr.

“Heliacal rising?” you ask. Heliacal rising means that a star (Sirius, in this case) rises just before the sunrise, early enough to be visible. Before the date of a star’s heliacal rising, it rises too late in the morning to be visible to the human eye, it’s light is blocked out by the much brighter light of our sun.

The ancients watched the stars closely. They paid attention to heliacal risings and other astronomical conjunctions. In his book, How We See the Sky, astronomer Thomas Hockey writes, “Imagine watching morning after morning for a favorite bright star. Then, one special morning, you can see it-but only for an instant because soon thereafter, as the sun gets higher in the sky, twilight gives way to daylight and the star (like all stars in daytime) disappears from view. You have witnessed the heliacal rising of a star.”

The ancients not only noticed sky events like heliacal risings, they attempted to draw connections between astronomical and Earthly happenings. As a Mediterranean agricultural people, the Romans saw the supposed effects of Sirius’s heliacal rise to be quite negative. Drought, extreme heat, wilted crops, plagues, and madness were attributed to Sirius’s evil influence.

Here in Minnesota, the dog days of summer are much more tolerable. Drought is rare. The temperature seldom breaks the 100 degree Fahrenheit mark (only about 20 percent of summers in Minnesota see a 100 degree plus day). Summer flowers are in bloom-finally breaking up the mostly green curtain of late spring and early summer.  Bees and butterflies abound in our pollinator garden.

Summer flowers in full bloom.
Summer flowers in full bloom.
Junior botanist
Junior botanist

Rather than straight up heat, we experience occasional high humidity here during the dog days, which can make even relatively mild temperatures quite uncomfortable. Meteorologists refer to the combined effects of heat and humidity as the heat index. Temps in the 90s combined with high humidity produce heat indexes of well over 100 degrees. In 2011, an excessively humid day in Minnesota led to a record setting heat index of 134 degrees in Moorhead, MN. Strange as it might sound, Moorhead was actually the hottest place in the U.S. that day.

Kicking back poolside.
Kicking back poolside.
Digging some sand.
Digging some sand.

But, for the most part, the dog days of summer in Minnesota are mild, sunny, and beautiful. People from all over the Midwest head to Minnesota to spend their vacations at our many lakes.

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At our house, we are enjoying the long, lazy, unscheduled dog days of summer. Daily morning walks, bike rides, eating fresh produce from our garden, splashing about in the kiddie pool, and digging in the sandbox. Summer is short in Minnesota and I try to forget the haste with which brisk autumn winds follow the dog days here. Instead, I focus on absorbing all the sunshine and simplicity that these warm days have to offer.

Feature image of the dog in the pool by Matt Deavenport via Flickr


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