The Darkest Time of the Year (is Not on the Solstice)

When is the earliest sunset?

December 6, 2019
Darkest Day of Year

When is the earliest sunset of the year? Many folks think it’s on the winter solstice. But the darkest days are actually now—in early December! Bob Berman explains.

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 in the Northern Hemisphere, 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” in terms of daylight. 

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. 

For example, in Boston, the Sun started setting at 4:11 p.m. two days ago, and won’t set later, at 4:12 p.m., until Dec. 14. 

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.

Your Sunset Time?

Test this out See when your sun starts setting. Try putting in two days ago, and then today, and one week from now!

Here’s the Almanac’s Sunrise & Sunset Calculator.

Why is the earliest sunset well before the winter solstice

To put it simply, 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, before winter eve starts, afternoons will start getting brighter!

About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s hub for everything 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