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Earliest sunsets are not at winter solstice

Sunset on Gozo (Malta) by EarthSky Facebook friend John Michael Mizzi.

Tonight for December 7, 2014

EarthSky Facebook friend John Michael Mizzi saw the sunset above from the island of Gozo (Malta), south of Italy.

The next solstice in 2014 comes on December 21 and marks an unofficial beginning for winter in the Northern Hemisphere. For this hemisphere, this upcoming solstice brings the shortest day and longest night of the year. And yet the earliest sunsets for middle latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere happen around December 7.

It seems paradoxical. At middle latitudes in the U.S. – and throughout the Northern Hemisphere – the earliest sunsets of the year come about two weeks before the solstice and the shortest day of the year.

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Montana sunset by EarthSky Facebook friend Dutch McClintock in Livingston. Thank you, Dutch!

Why isn’t the earliest sunset on the year’s shortest day? It’s because of the discrepancy between the clock and the sun. A clock ticks off exactly 24 hours from one noon to the next. But an actual day – as measured by the spin of the Earth, from what is called one “solar noon” to the next – rarely equals 24 hours exactly.

Solar noon is also called simply “midday.” It refers to that instant when the sun reaches its highest point for the day. In the month of December, the time period from one solar noon to the next is actually half a minute longer than 24 hours. On December 7, the sun reaches its noontime position at 11:52 a.m. local standard time. Two weeks later – on the winter solstice – the sun will reach its noontime position around 11:59 a.m. That’s 7 minutes later than on December 7.

Hong Kong sunset , at the Hong Kong Science Park, from EarthSky Facebook friend Kins Cheung. Thank you, Kins.

The later clock time for solar noon also means a later clock time for sunrise and sunset. The table below helps to explain.

For Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Date Sunrise Solar Noon (Midday) Sunset Daylight Hours
December 7 7:09 a.m. 11:52 a.m. 4:35 p.m. 9 hours 26 minutes
December 21 7:19 a.m. 11:59 a.m. 4:39 p.m. 9 hours 20 minutes

The exact date for the earliest sunset or earliest sunrise varies by latitude. Toward the end of the first week of December, mid-temperate latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere have their earliest sunsets, while the Southern Hemisphere’s mid-temperate latitudes are waking up to their earliest sunrises. At latitudes closer to the equator, the earliest sunset or earliest sunrise come at an earlier date. Closer to the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, the earliest sunset and earliest sunrise happen nearer the December sosltice.

Sunset in Manila by EarthSky Facebook frieind Jv Noriega. Thank you, Jv.

As you might have guessed, the latest sunrises and sunsets aren’t on the day of the solstice either. For middle latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, the latest sunrises come in early January.

So there’s variation in the exact dates, but the sequence is always the same for both hemispheres. First: earliest sunset before the winter solstice, the winter solstice itself, latest sunrise after the winter solstice. Half a year later: earliest sunrise before the summer solstice, the summer solstice itself, latest sunset.

The earliest and latest sunsets and sunrises are lovely phenomena that happen around every solstice. People around the world notice them and often ask about them.

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