It’s after 9 AM and I can still see the pinks and corals of sunrise outside the window of my North Carolina home. I’m not much of a morning person, so if I see the colors of the dawn it is not by choice, except maybe in late December. That is when the physics of living on a tilted planet combines with the sheer wonder of the heavens to create the mid-morning magic of the winter solstice.
I’m told by friends who are morning people that sunrises have been happening a little later each day for awhile now, pretty much since last June in fact, and they’ve been movingly steadily southward as well. Sunsets, which I love to observe with a glass of wine in hand, have been happening earlier and moving southward too. Best of all, they both occur more slowly as the sun appears to glide to the earth at ever more of an angle, giving us dusks and dawns that go on and on.
The noon sun sits lower in the southern sky this time of year too. Shorter days combine with the increased atmosphere that the sun’s rays have to travel through to get to us to yield the cold temperatures and snow we call winter.
You already know that the further north you are the more extreme this is. In Reykjavik the winter solstice sun will rise about 11:30 in the morning and set about 3:30 in the afternoon, giving those in Iceland a four hour day. Paris will have over eight hours of solstice daylight, while the day in Mexico City will last eleven hours.
Of course, the southern hemisphere is enjoying the long days of summer right now. Morning people in Cape Town will get to watch a 5:30 AM sunrise on our winter solstice, and South Africans who like to watch the sunset with a glass of wine, like I do, will be doing so at 8 PM.
What about folks who live above the arctic circle? The sun set on the ten thousand or so residents of Hammerfest Norway at about noon on November 21, and it will rise again on January 21, creeping barely above the horizon for about an hour of noontime sunrise that will turn into straight into a sunset, with the light of the dusk lingering long after the sun is gone. Needless to say, the event will be greeted with celebrations.
Qaanaaq Greenland has one of the longest polar nights of any town, with sunset occurring in late October and the sun first breaking back above the horizon in mid- February. The seven hundred or so residents of Qaanaaq use dogsleds to get around during the long winter night, and celebrate the return of the sun with family gatherings, songs, coffee and cakes.
What about folks who live almost on the equator? Their days do vary slightly, but no one there probably notices. The day in Quito is pretty much twelve hours long all year, give or take a few minutes, and because of the relatively high angle of the sun, the city has some of the fastest sunrises and sunsets on the planet.
You probably can tell that I’m fascinated by the seasons, just as I’m fascinated by pretty much everything else about our amazing planet. If you find such things interesting, check out a wonderful site called Time and Date where you can get a wide variety of information about observing the heavens from various places here on earth. I used the website as I wrote d4, researching the movement of the sun in both Greenland and Iceland as it affected my characters and my story.
Those of you who are sticklers for details might have noticed that the earliest sunset and latest sunrises don’t happen exactly on the solstices. The best explanation I’ve seen for this (and for much else involving the sun’s behavior) can be found in an article in The Telegraph from the UK entitled Winter solstice 2015: Everything you need to know about the shortest day of the year.
Although the winter and summer solstices are physical events dictated by the fact that our planet is tilted about twenty-three degrees off of the plane in which it rotates around the sun, I find both a mathematical beauty and a sense of wonder in the day. It is a point of pause, a time when motion in one direction halts, we breath, and then motion in another direction begins. It is the time when darkness has its longest reach, only to begin its retreat in a dance step that will be echoed by the light six months later.
Many religions celebrate the winter solstice outright; most others have placed a holiday involving lights somewhere around the darkest day of the year. I believe that we humans feel the significance of the day somewhere deep within, and we yearn to acknowledge it.
Finally, one might easily consider the first day the sunlight grows to be the true start of a new year. For even though the coldest temperatures and worst winter storms are yet to come, the cause for the coming spring and summer has begun.