Earliest sunset comes before winter solstice

Earliest sunset: Yellow sun against very orange sunset clouds.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Luka Milevoj caught this early sunset on November 23, 2021, above Pula, a seafront city in Croatia. Thank you, Luka!

Earliest sunset not on shortest day

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 farther north – around 40 degrees north latitude – the year’s earliest sunsets are happening this week, the week of December 5, 2021. 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.

Southern Hemisphere? For 40 degrees south latitude, the year’s earliest sunrises happen this week, as you progress toward your longest day at the December solstice.

Closer to the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, the earliest sunset and earliest sunrise happen nearer the solstice.

Want to know the date of your earliest sunset (or sunrise)? provides the sunrise/sunset times to the second, for locations around the globe.

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 2022 lunar calendars are here! Order yours before they’re gone. Makes a great gift.

Map of United States with 15 east-west parallel lines across it.
Stephen Aman shares his map of the United States that lists the dates of the year’s earliest sunset for various latitudes. Thank you, Stephen!


The next solstice in 2021 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.

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 27 minutes
December 21 7:19 a.m. 11:59 a.m. 4:38 p.m. 9 hours 20 minutes

Latest sunrises and sunsets

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.

Sunsets from the EarthSky Community

Montage of rainbow and pink ,sunset clouds.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Mohamed Mohamed caught this sunset and rainbow from Libya, Tripoli on December 3, 2021. Thank you, Mohamed!
Earliest sunsets: A beach at sunset, a stone arch on one side and colorful streaky clouds above.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Keyur Dani caught this glorious sunset on December 5, 2020, at Natural Bridge Beach, Santa Cruz, California.
Aerial view of very many closely spaced skyscrapers glowing in sunset light.
New York City sunset by Flickr user Jerry Ferguson.
Rural scene with sunset directly behind a silhouetted horse in the distance.
EarthSky Facebook friend Dutch McClintock in Livingston, Montana, took this photo. Livingston’s latitude is about 45 degrees north, so – for Dutch and all those living at that latitude – the earliest sunset will happen closer to the December solstice.
Vivid yellow and orange streaks in sky with blue sky above and single bright planet.
December sunset in Pike County, Illinois, via Russ Adams. The earliest sunsets for this location happen in early December.
Yellow sunset clouds between medium height modern buildings.
Hong Kong sunset, at the Hong Kong Science Park, from Kins Cheung. Hong Kong is at 22 degrees north latitude, so the earliest sunset there has already happened.
Circular panorama of sky filled with streaky red sunset clouds.
Sunset in Manila by EarthSky Facebook friend Jv Noriega. Manila is at 14 degrees north latitude, so the earliest sunset there happens even earlier than in Hong Kong.

Bottom line: The solstice comes on December 21 at 15:59 UTC, 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.

Solstice tale of two cities: New York, New York, and St. Augustine, Florida

Planet-observing is easy: Top tips here

EarthSky’s monthly planet guide: Visible planets and more

December 6, 2021

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Bruce McClure

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