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Latest sunrises happen in early January

So you like to sleep late, but don’t want to miss the sunrise? This time of year is for you. Sleep on – if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, that is. The latest sunrises of 2017 are happening around now for mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. For example, sunrise time in the central U.S. – say, around Wichita, Kansas – for the next several days will be around 7:45 a.m.

Meanwhile, if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, your latest sunsets are happening around now, assuming you’re at mid-southern latitudes.

Many sky watchers notice this phenomenon, which is part of an unvarying sequence each year. For us at mid-northern latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, the sequence is: earliest sunset in early December, shortest day at the solstice around December 21, latest sunrise in early January.

At middle latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, the sequence is: earliest sunrise in early December, longest day at the December solstice, latest sunset in early January.

This natural order is part of what we can expect, every year, from nature.

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The discrepancy between the clock and sun gives us the latest sunrises after the winter solstice for mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Photo credit: Amika Malone

The December solstice always brings the shortest day to the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day to the Southern Hemisphere. But, clearly, the latest sunrise doesn’t coincide with the day of least daylight, and the latest sunset doesn’t happen on the day of greatest daylight. Why not?

The main reason is that the Earth’s rotational axis is tilted 23.5o out of vertical to the plane of our orbit around the sun. A secondary reason is that the Earth’s orbit isn’t a perfect circle. Due to our eccentric orbit (that’s an orbit shaped like a squashed circle, with the sun slightly off its center), Earth travels fastest in January and slowest in July.

Clock time gets a bit out of sync with sun time – by about the tune of 1/2 minute per day for several weeks around the December solstice.

Because solar noon (midday) comes later by the clock today than on the solstice, so do the times of 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
January 3 7:23 a.m. 12:05 p.m. 4:48 p.m. 9 hours 25 minutes

The exact date for the latest sunrise or latest sunset varies by latitude. At present, mid-temperate latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere have their latest sunrises, while the Southern Hemisphere’s mid-temperate latitudes are watching their latest sunsets. At latitudes closer to the equator, the latest sunrise or latest sunset has yet to come. Closer to the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, the latest sunrise and latest sunset have already come and gone.

But in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, the sequence is always the same:

1) earliest sunset, winter solstice, latest sunrise
2) earliest sunrise, summer solstice, latest sunset

Bottom line: Notice the time of sunrise and sunset at this time of year. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, your latest sunrises are happening around now at mid-northern latitudes. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, mid-latitudes are watching the year’s latest sunsets. Enjoy them!

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Earth comes closest to the sun in early January

Bruce McClure

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