View the photo above at EarthSky Community Photos. | Keyur Dani caught this glorious sunset on December 5, 2020, at Natural Bridge Beach in Santa Cruz, California.
For the southernmost U.S. and similar latitudes – around 30 degrees north latitude – the earliest sunsets of the year happen in late November and early December. For latitudes further north – around 40 degrees north latitude – the year’s earliest sunsets are happening this week, the week of December 7, 2020. That would be the latitude of New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Kansas City, Missouri; Denver, Colorado; Reno, Nevada; Beijing, China; Madrid, Spain; and Naples, Italy.
Closer to the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, the earliest sunset and earliest sunrise happen nearer the solstice.
The exact date of the Northern Hemisphere’s earliest sunset and the Southern Hemisphere’s earliest sunrise varies by latitude. But, at temperate latitudes, both of these annual hallmarks in our sky come a few to several weeks before the December solstice, not on the solstice as you might expect.
The next solstice in 2020 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.
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.
Visit Sunrise Sunset Calendars to know the clock time for sunrise, solar noon and sunset plus day length in your part of the world, remembering to check the solar noon and day length boxes.
The later clock time for solar noon also means a later clock time for sunrise and sunset. The table below helps to explain.
|Date||Sunrise||Solar Noon (Midday)||Sunset||Daylight Hours|
|December 7||7:08 a.m.||11:52 a.m.||4:35 p.m.||9 hours 27 minutes|
|December 21||7:18 a.m.||11:58 a.m.||4:38 p.m.||9 hours 20 minutes|
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.
Bottom line: The 2020 solstice comes on December 21 by Universal Time, but the earliest sunsets at mid-northern latitudes – say, 40 degrees north latitude – happen on and around December 7 or 8. Latitudes closer to the equator had their earliest sunsets in late November, or earlier in December. Latitudes closer to the Arctic Circle will have their earliest sunsets closer to the December solstice.