Winter Solstice – The Shortest day of the Year

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Depending on how the calendar falls, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and 23. This year, the December solstice will occur at 05:30 UTC (12:30 a.m. EST) on December 22, 2011. While the southern hemisphere is experiencing the long days of summer, the northern hemisphere will have the “winter solstice” – often called the shortest day of the year.

Conversely, six months ago the northern hemisphere experienced the longest day with the summer solstice, with the southern hemisphere having their winter solstice. This is part of a never ending cycle and is at the heart of our seasons.

So, why do we call it the shortest day of the year for the winter solstice and longest day for the solstice in the summer? Do we lose some time off the clock in winter, and in summer do we miraculously gain time on the clock in a bizarre cycle that is imposed by old men in charge of calendars and times around the world? (I used to think this as a small boy…)

The fact is we don’t lose or gain any time; what we actually gain or lose is hours of sunlight. During the winter solstice we receive the least amount of sunlight of the year on that day.

To understand the winter and summer solstices we need to recognize a fundamental fact about the Earth. Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted approximately 23.5° from a vertical axis. This means that as the tilted Earth orbits the Sun during the year, the different hemispheres receive varying amounts of sunlight, as this tilt causes sunlight to strike the surface of Earth at different angles at different times of year.

In the summer, we see the Sun for longer periods of time and it appears high in the sky; the Sun’s rays are more direct and the heat energy is more abundant. In the winter, when the Sun is low in the sky and appears for less amount of time; there is less energy and the Sun therefore heats less efficiently.

If you live near the equator, you won’t notice much difference in the amount of sunlight you receive throughout the year. The biggest noticeable difference is at the poles, where each solstice brings an extreme in the hours of sunlight you receive; in summer the Sun never properly sets for weeks, and in winter it never rises, creating some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.

I always find the solstices to be magical times of year and look forward to either the longest or shortest days as they are the bringers of seasons, darkness and light.

The longest day – Summer Solstice 21st June 2011

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June 21st, 2011 is Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year.

This is the time when the Sun is at its highest or most northerly point in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere and when we receive the most hours of daylight. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere it is the reverse, so you will be having “Winter Solstice.”

Also known as “Midsummer” the Summer Solstice gets its name from the Latin for sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). The Sun reaches its most Northerly point and momentarily stands still before starting its journey South in the sky again until it reaches its most Southerly point “Winter Solstice”, before repeating the cycle. This is basically how we get our seasons.

It’s not actually the Sun that moves North or South over the seasons although it may appear so. It’s the Earths axial tilt that causes the Sun to change position in the sky as the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year.

Why Are There Seasons
The angle of the Sun and the Earth's seasons. Image credit: NASA

Summer Solstice/ Midsummer is steeped in ancient folklore especially in Northern Europe with the most famous place directly related to it being Stonehenge, where the sun has been worshiped for thousands of years.

Stonehenge Credit: bistrochic.net

The Sun reaches its most Northerly point in the sky at 17:16 UTC momentarily and from that point forward starts to make its way South. This means the days will get shorter and shorter until Winter Solstice in December.

Summer Solstice

Semi Major Axis

The summer solstice occurs once a year, and there is also a winter solstice each year. During both solstices, the tilt of the Earth’s axis is at its extreme either toward or away from the Sun. The tilt of the Earth does not actually change – it stays at 23.5° – however, the Earth also orbits the Sun causing different regions to be exposed to varying degrees of sunlight.

The word “solstice” has its roots in Latin from the words for “sun” and “to stand still.” This is because during the solstices, the Sun appears to stand still, and then it starts moving in the opposite direction in our sky. It begins to get lower in the sky, and the length of daylight starts getting shorter in the Northern Hemisphere.

In addition to the two solstices, there are also two equinoxes, which is where the days are of equal length at the equator.  The tilt of the Earth is also responsible for the change in seasons we experience. During the summer solstice, the Suns is directly over the Tropic of Cancer.

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year – the longest time there is daylight – in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere however with the winter solstice being the longest day of the year. The exact date of the summer solstice moves around somewhat because of the way years are set up in the Gregorian calendar. For example, it fell on June 20th in 2000. Usually, however, it is on June 21st.

In some cultures, the solstices, and the equinoxes, represent the start of the seasons while they are the midpoint in other cultures. The summer solstice is the beginning of summer in America. The summer solstice has long been a time for celebration for many different cultures. Midsummer was a holiday celebrated in various European cultures.

Traditionally, Midsummer’s Day falls on June 24th, several days after the actual solstice. The Midsummer celebration of the ancient Gauls was known as the Feast of Epona. In China, the summer solstice celebration represented yin, earth, and the feminine while its opposite – the yang – was celebrated during the winter solstice.

Germanic, Slav, and Celtic tribes in Europe used to celebrate Midsummer with huge bonfires. Jumping through the fire was supposed to grant protection to people and bring love. The bonfires were also supposed to lend their power to the Sun, which would begin to wan as winter approached.

Universe Today has articles on the shortest day of the year and the declination of the Sun that will help you learn more about the solstices and seasons.

If you are looking for more information, About.com has a number of good articles on the summer solstice and Science World has some great articles and resources.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Earth you will want to check out.