Where Does the Sun Set? (Hint: It's Not Always Due West)

Sun and Seasons
Photo Credit
Griffith Observatory

How the Sun rises and sets across the seasons

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We’ve all been told that the “Sun sets in the west.” Actually, that’s a generalization. Bob Berman talks about the sunset in fall, and how the Sun rises and sets across the seasons. You can even do your own Stonehenge thing, without moving a single rock!

The Sunset in Autumn

Back in September, at the autumnal equinox, you could see the Sun rise due east and set due west. This also happens at the spring equinox in March. 

But as we move from fall to winter, the Sun’s path drifts south. By the time we reach the winter solstice (around December 21), the Sun rises as far to the southeast as it ever does, and sets as far to the southwest. (As we shift from the summer solstice to the autumnal equinox, the Sun rises and sets as far to the northern points as possible.)

As of this writing in late October, the Sun is now visiting the gorgeous, mythical constellation of Scorpius, and in a month, it’ll push into the lowest star pattern of all—Sagittarius. This means it’s now entering the most southerly part of the zodiac, visiting high-rent neighborhoods that make it shine into windows that don’t often enjoy full illumination.

This dramatic change was reliably observed and celebrated by civilizations everywhere. Five thousand years ago, the Egyptians built Giza’s Great Pyramid to have one side angled precisely toward the equinox sunset, with an accuracy of far better than one degree. The Stonehenge folks did something similar, and so did the Mayans. Obviously, people around the world kept track of these annual solar changes.

See six ancient markers aligned with the equinox and solstice.

Tracking the Sun Yourself

We don’t need a Stonehenge. Here’s how to track the Sun. 

  • In the morning, at 7 A.M., look outside your East window. In the evening, at 5:30 P.M, look outside your West window.  Mentally mark exactly where the Sun comes up. 
    It’s easy to do now that sunlight hits us at 7 AM instead of the 5 AM daylight just a few months ago in September. 
  • Then check it out again before the December holidays, and you’ll see it’s then gone even further, to its absolute extreme.
  • Each evening, it sinks down way to the left of its average sunset position. 

With this week’s ending of Daylight Savings Time, it’s also the occasion to check out the height of the noontime Sun. See how low it is compared with its high overhead position a few months ago.

Observe the position of the Sun and its path over the seasons!

To ancient peoples, none of this was good news. Rightmost sunrises, leftmost sunsets, and low midday Sun positions meant that the coldest weather was just a mere one month in the future. 

Food was getting scarce. Hard times were arriving. But if the woodshed was full and the fruits preserved, it indicated that they could bundle up, cuddle with loved ones, and maybe look forward to a few months of “riding out” the season by enjoying home life.

We can hopefully do the same.

Learn more about the reasons for the seasons.

About The Author

Bob Berman

Bob Berman, astronomer editor for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, covers everything under the Sun (and Moon)! Bob is the world’s most widely read astronomer and has written ten popular books. Read More from Bob Berman

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