Why is the winter so dark and for so long?

Today is the Winter Solstice for the Northern Hemisphere. This marks the start of winter as well as the shortest day and longest night of the year.

In Seattle this morning, the sun rose at 7:54 a.m., and it will set at 4:22 p.m., giving us almost nine hours of subdued daylight.

A View of Seattle on a Chilly Winter Solstice Morning

But in the Northwest, it’s not just the winter time when we feel the effects from the lack of sun. We begin to feel cloaked in darkness as early as October. As soon as the leaves begin to turn color, a popular grumble is “go to work in the dark and come home from work in the dark.” Combine this dour sentiment with constant gray skies, and it’s no wonder that Northwesterns love their caffeine and microbrews so much.

“Solstice” in Latin means “for the sun to stand still,” and this standing-still effect is definitely felt in my region. On most fall and winter days, it feels like it gets dark around 4:00 p.m and stays that way for several months.

A Seattle Times reporter recently investigated why Seattle sunsets seem stuck in time for a week before the Solstice (around 4:18 p.m.), while the sun keeps rising later until Dec. 22. The cause for this feeling is related to the Solstice in a couple of ways.

The Earth's position to the sun during Winter Solstice

During Winter Solstice — which occurred this year at 12:30 a.m. EST on Dec. 22 — the Earth rotates on an axis that is titled as far away from the sun as possible. This tilt affects our perception of high noon. We think that noon occurs when the sun is directly overhead. However, as the Earth’s axis tilts throughout the year, the sun can either be ahead or behind of “noon”. Therefore, our clocks are not always synced up with solar time. Thus, the feeling of stagnant darkness is a combination of two things concerning the sun: the progressive tilt away from it and our progressive de-synchronization with it (not to mention the time shift that daylight-savings time throws in as well).

Overall, dealing with the prolonged darkness can be rough. But I enjoy the arrival of Winter Solstice because it means that the days will get longer between now and June 21, as the Earth points us back towards the sun. Many cultures and traditions celebrate the Winter Solstice as the beginning of a new year and sunnier times ahead. Plus the festivities of Christmas and New Year’s are just around the corner.

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