The Darkest Time of the Year

Darkest Day of Year

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These are our darkest afternoons. But, surprise! For most of us, Thursday, December 8, will bring the turnaround. It’s a major winter milestone: the day of our earliest sunset.

This puzzles people, but in fact it’s a reliable yearly sequence. First comes earliest sunset, this week. Then there’s the solstice half a month later, the day with the fewest minutes of daylight. Finally, another two weeks later, in early January, we get our murkiest morning—the latest sunrise.

So we’re now slam bang at the low point of afternoon sunshine. And since far more people are awake and aware of things at 4:30 PM than they are at 6 in the morning, in a very real sense you can forget about the solstice and the “official” shortest day of the year. So far as what most folks actually experience, NOW is the darkest time of the year.

Of course, the degree of darkness varies, depending on how far north you live. As for the time the clock reads at sunset—this also depends on how far east or west your home sits, relative to your standard time zone.

For example, here in the mountains of upstate New York, my time zone is Eastern, which is set for longitude 75 degrees, a line that passes through the dairy farm regions of Oneonta and Herkimer, New York.

  • Those living east of that line experience progressively earlier sunsets.
  • Drive just an hour east from where you are right now, and the Sun sets ten minutes earlier. That’s because going east around the Earth’s curve makes your western horizon rise up to block the Sun sooner.
  • Go a mere 35 miles east, and the sun sets five minutes earlier.

In my region, which is the rural Northeastern US, the very earliest sunsets happen for those who indeed live both north AND east—namely, along the upper coast of Maine.

It all reflects the reality that tropical sunsets hardly vary throughout the year, while polar sunsets change wildly through the seasons. If you lived right smack on the equator, like in Quito, Ecuador, your minutes of daylight would never budge throughout the year, not even by one second. By contrast, our northern friends in Minnesota and especially Alaska experience the most radically short days in December.

But wherever you live, after December 8, before winter even starts, afternoons will start getting brighter!

About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s blog on stargazing and astronomy. Wondering which bright objects you’re seeing in the night sky? Want to learn about a breathtaking sight coming up? Bob Berman, longtime and famous astronomer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, will help bring alive the wonders of our universe. From the beautiful stars and planets to magical auroras and eclipses, we’ll cover everything under the Sun (and Moon)!

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Earliest sunset

The date of earliest sunset a really depends on your latitude - the nearer the poles you are, the nearer the winter solstice it will occur. For lower latitudes (nearer the equator) the earliest sunset can occur in late November.

Earliest Sunset

Yes, you’ve made an excellent point, and it’s true. That’s why I said “for most of us” – because virtually all these sky events have latitude-dependent deviations. My favorite happens for our friends in the far north, like in Fairbanks. Here in the lower 48 and Hawaii, the Harvest Moon rises only 20 - 25 minutes later each night for several nights surrounding the September equinox, instead of the normal 50 minutes later the rest of the year. We don’t usually mention it, but in the far north the Moon at that time can actually come up EARLIER on successive nights! For most events in our calendar (like the visibility dates for Mercury) I do the calculations based on where the majority of us live, or else I use our headquarters in Dublin, New Hampshire. —Bob Berman

Darkest night?

I had no idea,, December 8th is the darkest night, must have something with the moon and nighttime

Darkest day, not darkest night

Let’s be totally clear:  December 8 is not the darkest night. It’s the darkest DAY. As we explained, this means that it’s the gloomiest afternoon, the earliest sunset. And since far more people are awake and aware at 4:15 PM than at 6 AM, it’s the afternoon darkness that gets widely noticed by the most people, and that’s the date when you experience that.

For “darkest night” honors I’d pick the winter solstice, December 21, which has the longest night. For maximum darkness, I’d also want the Moon to be absent. Happily, if you’re a darkness-fan, like a vampire, an insomniac, or maybe a cat burglar, this year the solstice happens a whole week after the full moon, and on that night the Moon won’t even rise until midnight, leaving the first half of the night quite dark indeed!   –Bob Berman

darkest night

Hello, Mr. Berman ~ In the Old Farmer's Almanac 2016, the December Left-Hand Calendar Page lists the earliest (of 12) sunsets as starting on 1 December, not on the 8 December date that you have in your article "The Darkest Time of the Year." Could you please explain the discrepancy? Thank you.

Earliest Sunset

Yes, I see that in the OFA, print edition, we have our earliest sunset (4:12 PM) as happening from December 1 through December 14. That is correct. if you (or we) wanted even greater precision and bothered factoring in the SECONDS, you’d find that the very, absolute earliest sunset is in the middle of that range, meaning December 7 and December 8 – which is true. You’ll also notice that by the time of the solstice on December 21, the afternoons are brightening, with the sun setting a few minutes later by then! —Bob Berman

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