The daylight is in short supply lately with the sun spending less time in the sky, especially here in Chicago when sunset is around 4:20 p.m., meaning twilight starts at 3:30, and by 6 p.m. it’s as dark as the middle of the night. The means the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, is just around the corner. Here are some facts about the Winter Solstice so that when your kids ask, you’re ready with astronomical and historic answers.
On what date will the winter solstice fall through the year 2049 in the Eastern Time Zone?
It will occur on December 21 in 2019, and in the next few years as well. In 2023 it will occur on December 22, but in 2024 it returns to December 21. It always falls between December 20th and 23rd, both those dates are rare. It will next occur on December 20th in 2080 and won’t fal on December 23 until 2303.
Is it the shortest day of the year?
Actually, that’s a bit of a trick question because it depends on where you live. If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, yes, it is the shortest day of the year, meaning the day with the least amount of daylight. North of the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole there is no daylight at all. Chicago is looking at just over 9 hours of daylight, according to timeanddate.com.
In the Southern Hemisphere, however, it is the longest day of the year.
Does the winter solstice mark the first day of winter?
The answer to that depends on your definition of winter. The Winter Solstice marks the beginning of astronomical winter. Astronomical winter, however, starts with the winter solstice and is December 21, 2012 through March 20, 2013. Meteorological winter, however, is defined as December 1-February 28, the three coldest months of the year.
Where does the word “solstice” come from?
The word “solstice” comes from the Latin words for “sun” and “to stand still.” The Earth’s axis in the Northern Hemisphere points the farthest away from the sun on the solstice and the sun is at its southern most point in the sky. The sun is at 23.5 degrees south of the celestial equator, which is known as the Tropic of Capricorn. At that point, when it is farthest away, the sun appears to stand still in the sky.
What landmark in Ireland’s Boyne Valley was built to mark the winter solstice and aligns perfectly with the sun at that point?
Around 3,200 B.C., people constructed an ancient temple and tomb now known as Newgrange in Ireland. It was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge and is remarkable in part because, on the Winter Solstice, “a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear of the chamber.”
In ancient times and still today, people wait in the pitch dark room for the illumination that comes on the Winter Solstice and lasts for 17 minutes. Demand to attend now is so great that there’s a lottery to be able to do so.
If the Northern Hemisphere is as away from the sun it will be in a year, does the winter solstice also mark the coldest weather?
Nope. The coldest days of the year usually come later. The National Weather Services explains that the “lag in temperature occurs because even though the minutes of daylight are increasing [after the solstice], the earth’s surface continues to lose more energy than it receives from the sun.”
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