Winter may be just beginning, but our long dark nights are about to get a little brighter. Monday is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year on Earth. We’ll start gaining some seconds of daylight again on Tuesday.
The solstice this year which occurs at 5:02 a.m. on Monday Another special astronomical occurrence coincides with the Eastern one: Jupiter and Saturn will be in a remarkable celestial conjunction on Monday evening, appearing closer together in the evening sky than they have in almost 800 years. Until 2080, they won’t appear so similar again.
A strong explanation for looking skyward at the solstice is the optical proximity of the two giant planets. But if you miss the case, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the winter solstice in its own right (or clouds ruin the show).
What happens on the solstice?
The sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn on the December solstice, a line of latitude 23.5 degrees south of the Earth’s equator. Before beginning its six-month trip northward again, it is as far south as the sun ever gets. Here in the northern hemisphere, we see the sun moving through the southern sky on its lowest and shortest course, which is why it’s dark for a good part of the day.
The reason we have solstices and seasons is that the Earth is not fully upright, orbiting the sun. Instead, our world is rotated by about 23.5 degrees on its axis, which ensures that one hemisphere at various times of year absorbs most of the sun’s light and energy.
The Northern Hemisphere leans away from the sun on the winter solstice, and we get even less direct sunlight. The Southern Hemisphere, meanwhile is entering summer and individuals are celebrating their longest day of the year.
A common myth is that during winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the Planet is further away from the sun. In reality, the reverse is true: in early January, we are about 3 million miles closer to the sun than in July, writes Space.com.
The term “solstice” derives from the Latin word solstitium, meaning “sun standing still The sun’s constant southward movement in the sky seems to stop on the December solstice, and we see the sun rising and setting at its southernmost points on the horizon. The direction of sunrise and sunset will slowly begin to move northward again after the solstice.
On Dec. 21, the Northern Hemisphere has the shortest day of the year but the amount of daylight depends on how far from the equator you live. In the Lower 48, in much of Texas, Louisiana and Florida, daylight on the winter solstice reaches 10 hours, while most of the Upper Midwest and states along the Canadian border have under nine hours of sunshine.
Washington, D.C., on Dec. 21, has 9 hours and 26 minutes of daylight, with 7:23 a.m. sunrise At 4:49 p.m. and sunset The sun ascends just 27.7 degrees above the horizon at solar noon (12:06 p.m.), our lowest midday sun angle of the year. The low angle of the sun is why on the winter solstice you will cast your longest noontime shadow of the year.
It helps to put things in perspective if these long winter nights are sapping your battery. In Alaska, for example, at this time of year the sun barely rises above the horizon. During the winter solstice, Anchorage sees only 5 hours and 27 minutes of daylight, while Fairbanks sees only 3 hours and 42 minutes of sunlight.
The sun does not rise at all, north of the Arctic Circle (66,5 degrees north latitude). The entire day is shrouded in darkness, aside from a few hours of faint twilight.
While in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice marks the shortest daylight time, it is never the day of the latest sunrise or earliest sunset. D.C.’s earliest sunset (4:45 p.m.) is usually about Dec. 7, although, according to timeanddate.com., our last sunrise (7:27 a.m.) is not until Jan. 5.
Depending on one’s latitude, the precise dates of the earliest sunset and the latest sunrise. The earliest sunset and the latest sunrise happen around two weeks before and after the solstice, respectively, in most of the Lower 48. On or near the date of the winter solstice, closer to the Arctic Circle, the earliest sunset and latest sunrise occur.
The upshot is that for another two weeks, mornings will continue to get darker, even as we tack steadily on a few minutes of daylight at night. Sunset in the District will be at 4:56 p.m. by the end of December, a gain of 10 minutes from the beginning of the month. By Jan. 6, after 5 p.m., we’ll see our first sunset.
While usually the coldest winter days don’t come until mid-January, the silver lining is that just around the corner are brighter days.