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!