Here comes the Sun

By Phil Plait | December 20, 2008 4:48 pm

At 12:04 p.m. UT (5:04 a.m. Mountain US Time) on December 21, the Sun will reach its most southerly declination. Over the past six months, for people in the northern hemisphere, every day the peak of the Sun’s arc across the daytime sky has been getting lower. Well, at 12:04 UT it reaches its lowest point, and now every day the Sun will be a bit higher in the sky at local noon. It will peak on June 21 at 05:45 UT, and be at the highest point it can get. Then the process reverses.

We call those points in time the solstices. Despite the fact that half the Earth has its seasons reversed, tonight is the Winter Solstice, and June’s is the Summer Solstice. If you live south of the Equator, sorry, but that’s what you get for living your lives standing on your head.

Anyway, the Winter Solstice has always been a time of celebration, because ancient people — more closely tied with the skies due to agriculture and no light pollution — knew that it meant the Sun was coming back up, and spring was coming. We celebrate it in modern times by going into debt. We’re far more sophisticated these days.

So given the weather here in Boulder the past few weeks, even though I love the snow, I’ll be glad to see the Sun up a little it longer every day.

Next on the trip ’round the Sun: perihelion, January 4th!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Science

Comments (42)

  1. gopher65

    I was just noting yesterday that the sun was at about 15 degrees above the horizon… at 3 in the afternoon. It’s always weird when this happens every year:). I don’t notice the buildup to the Summer Solstice, but I sure notice the approach of the Winter one.

  2. Davidlpf

    So we can balance eggs tomorrow. ;-)

  3. Ariel Guerrero

    I will assume, Phil, that ‘that’s what you get for living your lives standing on your head’… was a bad joke.

  4. ShoeShine Boy

    Phil (or any one else), do you know where I can find historic perihelion dates? I just might have been born on the perihelion.

  5. If you live south of the Equator, sorry, but that’s what you get for living your lives standing on your head.

    Despite the fact that I read this article mumbling “I already know about Solstices, thanks…” I never knew they still called them Winter Solstices in the Southern Hemisphere! Ya got meh.

  6. Margrit McIntosh

    Strangely, however, the solstice does not mark the earliest sunset; nor does it mark the latest sunrise! The earliest sunset was in the first week in December Dec. 2-4, (5:18 p.m. here in Tucson), and the latest sunrise will be January 6-11, (7:26 a.m. Tucson).

    I always knew this kind of vaguely, because my Mom was into the almanac-y things, but last year I really noticed it, because I practice archery in my back yard, and before the solstice, I one day noticed that it was still light enough to shoot, even though it was past 5:20 p.m.

  7. IVAN3MAN

    Talking of ancient people, Phil, you can watch a live web-cast of the solstice sunrise from the megalithic tomb of Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland. Newgrange dates to 5,000 years ago, much older than Stonehenge, but also with accurate alignments to the solstice Sun. To watch the live web-cast, follow the indicated link below. The web-cast is planned to go live at 0830 UTC (for example, at 3:30am Eastern Time in the US) tomorrow, Sunday, 21st of December.

    Web-cast of the solstice sunrise from Newgrange.

  8. IVAN3MAN

    Dr. Phil Plait:

    Despite the fact that half the Earth has its seasons reversed, tonight is the Winter Solstice, and June’s is the Summer Solstice. If you live south of the Equator, sorry, but that’s what you get for living your lives standing on your head.

    ¡¿ʇɐɥʇ ɹoɟ puɐʇs ɐuuob ɹǝpun-uʍop sǝıssnɐ noʎ ǝɹɐ ‘ɥʇʍǝɹʇs

  9. Last year on the solstice I was at the grocery store, and while I was checking out the woman in line in front of me was complaining about how the day was so short, and said something like, “The days are just getting shorter and shorter!”

    I replied with, “Well, today was the shortest day, so they’ll only get longer from here.”

    Her response, “How do you know?!” She had absolutely no idea how I could be so sure about that.

    Sigh.

  10. ad

    We actually celebrate it in modern times with Christmas, a festival celebrating the birth of the Sun (oops sorry, Son). As do about another dozen or so religions who all have their saviour born on December 25th, usually from a virgin.

  11. Nemo

    Her response, “How do you know?!”

    Doubtless she was planning to perform a sacrifice later to plead for the return of the sun.

    I never knew they still called them Winter Solstices in the Southern Hemisphere!

    Yeah, that doesn’t sound right to me.

  12. Swede

    Well that’s nice, it doesnt feel like it matters much though.. I don’t think we have actually seen the sun or any other stars this month here in south-east Sweden.

  13. “I never knew they still called them Winter Solstices in the Southern Hemisphere!”

    We don’t! We call it the Summer Solstice (or, if you’re being technically accurate, Southern Solstice), like sensible people!

    Given that perihelion is when it’s summer for us down here, I still way we’re the ones who are right way up and you lot in the North are the wrong way around ;) *basks in glorious summer sun*

  14. Futura Black

    I’m pretty sure it was a joke, but people seems to be getting confused, so, I think it’s far to say that today it’s both: -winter solstice AND summer solstice-, …it’s just a matter of where on earth YOU are ^_^…

    … I’m only at 10°12´ N, (but still live somehow on the south, -that would be the north of south america-), and even here, so near the ecuador, you can tell the daylight gets shorter, and can notices the sun’s arc getting to the south in the sky…

    So, anyways:
    …ppl in findland, Happy solstice! Hang on, sun it’s comming!
    …ppl in argentina, feliz solsticio! pasenla bomba en la playa!

  15. “the Winter Solstice has always been a time of celebration, because ancient people [...] knew that it meant the Sun was coming back up, and spring was coming.”

    Isn’t the heart of winter still after the Winter Solstice? Sure, the sun is coming back up, but the Earth is still cooling down, since it takes quite a long time to diffuse the energy or lack thereof. At least here in Holland and Belgium, the coldest time of year is usually around the end of January, not at December 21st.

  16. “Given that perihelion is when it’s summer for us down here, I still way we’re the ones who are right way up and you lot in the North are the wrong way around *basks in glorious summer sun*”

    It’s funny that, as you know, there actually is no up or down in space and North and South are just an arbitrary choice. If it weren’t for the fact that most of civilization developed in the Northern Hemisphere, it would indeed make more sense to swap North and South, reverse all our maps, and call Europe “Down Under”… :)

  17. Chris

    da na na naaa
    Here comes the Sun, I say
    It’s alright
    da na na na na na naaaa

  18. DrFlimmer

    Oh, happy day…. Days are getting longer, again! Wohoo!!!

  19. Ihab Hussein

    Over the past six months, for people in the northern hemisphere, every day the peak of the Sun’s arc across the daytime sky has been getting lower.

    Pedantic point: you know that’s not strictly true for people living between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer.

  20. Henrik

    The sun has just set here at lat. 65N…

  21. BaldApe

    I teach Earth Science in a Maryland high school. We used to have a county final exam, and one of my major peeves is that they would show a picture of the whole planet and ask what season it was.

    I view one of my major roles as a teacher to wage war on provincialism (or is it parocialism?)

  22. StevoR

    Here comes the Sun, Little darling,
    Here comes the Sun,Doo-doo-doah
    Its alright Da-da-da-da-ada …

    Liil’ Darlin’

    Its been a long cold frosty winter,

    Lil’ Darlin’ its been a year since we’ve been here ..

    Here comes the Sun lil’ darlin’
    Here comes the Sun,
    Dah-dee -dee-dee -da-da

    Here comes the Sun, little darlin’
    Here comes the Sun,

    Its gonan be alright … ;-) :-D

    (Ah yes those Beatles! ;-) )

    Actually on the South-North hemispheric divide …

    …. Just wait til the next global magnetic field reversal.

    South will be north & vice-versa. ;-)

    & thanks for complimenting our ability to do hand-stands but actually we’re not all * that * acrobatic * all * the time! ;-) 8)

    Its a solstice that’s all – winter for you, summerfor us here inOz and elsewhere and let’s just reinstate Sol Invictus as the celebratory festival shall we? Everyone happy with that? ;-)

  23. C G

    At last the dragon spits out the sun..

  24. Rajjan

    “Anyway, the Winter Solstice has always been a time of celebration”, in Sweden for example, christmas still goes by the ancient name “Jul” wich has nothing with christianity to do, but was the old name for celebrating the winter solstice. And then close to the summer solstice we still celebrate the “midsummers eve”, with a fallos and everything. Christianity never really got the grip of the swedish people…

  25. Grant

    I have solstical affective disorder.

  26. Dean

    And inevitably, the news anchors, when talking about any major winter events in December looooooooooove to say how “it’s not even winter yet!”.

    In Canada.

    Sigh.

    You’d think after 130 years Canadians would realize that winter weather starts before the winter solstice.

  27. Crux Australis

    Oh yeah, cool. And Australia’s the *only* piece of real estate in the South Pacific, right? Hmmph.

  28. Isn’t the proper neutral term just the December Solstice? AFAIK, we Southern hemispherians call the June Solstice the Winter Solstice (when we’re feeling partisan)…

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    And then close to the summer solstice we still celebrate the “midsummers eve”, with a fallos and everything.

    Actually, IIRC there isn’t any historical evidence for the may pole being a phallus symbol (possibly stuck into a vulva symbol) or that midsummer eve celebration was a fertility ritual or what not, it is rather strong national romantic notions from the 19th century or so converted to nice modern urban myths.

    Practically a may pole is a convenient catch up work while long traveling families meet up, a large scale orienting device (“here it is”), a display of flower arrangement, and an organizer for play and dance. I think that is enough easy reasons for its invention and adapting against proposing to add religious explanations as well.

    Christianity never really got the grip of the swedish people…

    But this seems true, as far as the more literal tradition goes.

    The rituals and the bureaucracy got a powerful grip by smooching up to the secular power, which is why Sweden had unanimous church attendance and some of the most comprehensive church records in the world (for taxation purposes).

    But seeing how many readily ditched the protestantic lax text tradition for modern private religious ideas a few generations ago, the organized religious ideas must have had a rather loose grip on the population. Of course, the early adaptation of general and good education, probably played the major role here, actually founded in the church tradition (as always their own worst enemy) for the purpose of studying religious texts.

    As a sanity check, compare with the protestantic work tradition, that held up until the last generation. One could possibly claim that it was a continuation from the old farming community in a harsh climate, explaining why it alone remained rather untouched for so long.

    [Then again, I hear that when you figure in the age and pension structure the apparent lax working hours that Swedes now enjoy still sums up among the most worked hours over life. (I assume the Japanese are worst, as always.) So perhaps the old work, work, work tradition is just transformed, as it were.]

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Hmm. Thinking it over again, I will have to replace “seems true” with “may be true”, as education may well suffice to explain the protestantic-to-private religious switch. And there are other contingencies at play, such as the modern dis-empowerment of the church, both in the political and the intellectual (see Hedenius) sphere.

    Btw, personally I like the idea that people may kick bad habits (especially when presented with better options that wasn’t there before), so I may heave to the idea that perhaps organized religious traditions once had the grip but lost it.

    And if the churches are hiding their failure behind the idea that they didn’t fail, they just didn’t succeed, it will serve a socially beneficial purpose for suggesting the converse idea – especially if it’s true. :-)

  31. The Brights’ calendar 2009 refers to the “Northward” and “Southward” equinoxes and the “Northern” and “Southern” solstices, which I thought was brilliant! A very neat way to avoid confusion and/or accusations of bias :)

  32. Levi in NY

    Hooray! The Sun is finally coming back to the best hemisphere on Earth! Having just walked five miles out in the cold, wind and snow, I really understand why my ancestors took up sun worship.

    By the way, what’s the cheapest and most efficient way I can release large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

  33. AndyG

    Us regular bike riders are deeply attuned to the gloom too – it’s much more obvious when you’re out in it. This year we combined ancient and modern, science and superstition, and lit our solstice bonfire with thermite. :)

    (video: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_Z7XDDgf_ts – caveat for a naughty word ‘cos I was startled)

  34. Davidlpf

    Just get a group of politicians together.

  35. Davidlpf Says: “So we can balance eggs tomorrow?”

    Yes, on their sides all day, and you can’t push them over!

    - Jack

  36. Wait, wait, my sister just sent me an email about balancing an egg! :) Should we try it? Oh wait, that’s the egguinox? Or just about any day… Aw, forget it…
    :P

  37. “the best hemisphere on Earth”… hmmm…

    That got me thinking. Each of us has our own unique hemisphere, centred on the place where we live, and bounded by a great circle 90% from that place at every point.

    So there you go – now we can all be totally biased without invoking collectivism ;)

  38. Nemo

    By the way, what’s the cheapest and most efficient way I can release large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

    Die, and decompose.

    Well, that’s the answer that question deserves, anyway. I think the real answer would be “start forest fires”.

  39. Brian

    Actually, dying — and therefore consuming no further food or fuel — is probably one of the greenest things a person can do.

  40. CentaurMyth

    # ad Says:
    December 20th, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    We actually celebrate it in modern times with Christmas, a festival celebrating the birth of the Sun (oops sorry, Son). As do about another dozen or so religions who all have their saviour born on December 25th, usually from a virgin.

    Which dozen religions celebrate “sons” that are virgin-born?

  41. Mom

    My father was born on Dec. 21. My son was born on Dec. 21 and my other son was born on June 21. The solstice is in my blood.

    As a matter of fact, my first son will become 13 within minutes of the end of the world (according to the Mayan calendar–and depending on which prediction you want to believe.)

    His birth: 12/21/99 at 11:13pm. The end of the world: 12/21/12 at 11:11pm.

    So maybe they got it wrong. Maybe it was the end of the world as we know it and my son will be the new Messiah. Which is good ‘cuz he can discuss with you the difference between ionic bonds and covalent bonds and the cause of the loss of Mar’s atmosphere and has spent much time thinking about the grand unification theory.

    Maybe the age of science is beginning. One can only hope.

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