When Is the Darkest Time of the Year?

The Earliest Sunsets Of The Year Are Happening Now

Nov 30, 2018
Darkest Day of Year

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Did you know that early December is when the darkest days of the year occur? It’s a major winter milestone: the days of our earliest sunsets.

This puzzles people, but in fact it’s a reliable yearly sequence. First comes the earliest sunset, in early December. Then there’s the winter solstice half a month later on December 21, 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, THIS is the darkest time of the year. Yes, your earliest sunsets will actually come before the winter solstice. 

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, I live in the mountains of upstate New York on Eastern Time. My earliest sunsets are around December 8.
  • If you live in the southernmost U.S., or a comparable latitude (about 25 or 26 degrees N. latitude), your earliest sunsets are in late November.
  • 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.

(See the Almanac’s Sunrise & Sunset Calculator customized to your zip code.)

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 Canada and 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. 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, he covers everything under the Sun (and Moon)! Bob, the world’s mostly widely read astronomer, also has a new weekly podcast, Astounding Universe

Reader Comments

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When is a day not a day?

The reason for the earliest sunset not occurring on the winter solstice is fascinating and complex, but in simple terms: if you define a "day" as noon to noon - i.e. the highest point of the sun one day to the highest point the next day - then the AVERAGE day lasts exactly 24 hours, but most individual days are actually a few seconds shorter or longer! (It's a sine function, for those who remember their high-school trigonometry.)

Modern technological society, and industrial society before it, required precision and simplicity (for the clocks), so a day was defined as 24 hours of exactly 60 minutes each; but in fact, the length of a noon-to-noon day changes between the equinox and the solstice, and of course changes back again between the solstice and the equinox. It is because the solar noons aren't exactly 86,400 seconds apart, but the clocks still pretend they are, that the sunset starts to get later in early December while the total amount of daylight is still shrinking.

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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