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

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When Is the Earliest Sunset?

Bob Berman

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 phenomenon.

To most of us in North America, this is a dark time of year and the sunsets come exceedingly early. It might surprise you to learn that the earliest sunsets come several weeks before the winter solstice, not on the solstice, as many would guess.

This puzzles people, but it's actually 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. 

The Darkest Time of Year

So far as what most folks actually experience, THIS is the darkest time of the year

For example, in Boston, the Sun starts setting at 4:11 p.m. on December 5 and won't start setting later, at 4:12 p.m., until December 13. 

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 northern latitudes, the earliest sunsets of the year happen around December 7.  Think about 40 degrees latitude, so New York City; Philadelphia, Kansas City, Denver, and Reno. 
  • If you live in the southernmost U.S., or a comparable latitude (about 25 or 26 degrees N. latitude), your earliest sunsets are actually 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 yourself! 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!

Learn all about the winter solstice coming up!

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Comments

Jindřich Traugott (not verified)

10 months 3 weeks ago

The Czechs say: "Lucie, noci upije a dne nepřidá."
Lucie (on 12/13) drinks the night and does not add the day.
I created a chart for our region (N50 E15) a few years ago.
But the shape of the sunrise and sunset curves varies a lot depending on latitude.
Since URL links are not allowed here, you must find this chart yourself. Its name is "Lucie noci upije" and is in PDF format.

sundialer

Mart (not verified)

11 months 3 weeks ago

Since the solstice has the fewest minutes of daylight, how is that not the darkest? It may get dark earlier in the early days of December, but according to your article there are still more minutes of daylight at that time.

The Editors

11 months 3 weeks ago

In reply to by Mart (not verified)

Yes, technically, the solstice is the day with the shortest minutes of daylight. Bob is essentially saying that these preceding days with such early sunsets simply feel like longest, darkest nights, essentially because we're more aware of the dark hours near the dark of night than nearer to dawn. After the solstice, the days get "longer."

James (not verified)

11 months 3 weeks ago

I love these columns about the heavens.
I think I must be the only person that loves Winter, and Standard Time. It's a reprieve from the heat and long days of summer in Texas.

Georgis (not verified)

1 year 11 months ago

Interesting. I am in Eastern TN (Sweetwater), and our earliest sunset stalls at 5:24PM for 10-14 days, depending on which calculator I use. The "My Moon Phase" ap on my iPhone says Nov 28 - Dec 13. The Almanac goes from Nov 30 - Dec 10.
My "shortest" day will only be 2 or 3 days. In other places I have lived in the U.S., the actual "shortest" day stalled for a longer time, as both the sunrise and sunset times shifted in lockstep.