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The Sun’s Striptease

December 22, which is 4 days from now, is Winter Solstice. For those of us living north of the equator, it’ll be the shortest day of the year. For those of us living along the Arctic Circle, the sun will not rise above the horizon. On December 22, sunrise here will be at 11:37 am, and sunset will be at 12:25 pm, making a “day” of 48 minutes. In Boston on the same day, there’ll be 9 hours between sunrise and sunset.

So you ask, I thought sun doesn’t come up north of the Arctic Circle? It’s really a matter of definitions. Sunrise is defined by the lip of the sun peeking above the horizon, but the center of the sun could still be below the horizon. In fact, it’s 0.1 degree below the horizon now at its highest. But in truth, I haven’t seen the sun for a couple of weeks now because of the mountain range south of us on mainland.

High Noon at the Arctic Circle

In the morning, I walk with the children to school in complete darkness. At around 9:30 am, the sky starts to light up. How bright it becomes is highly dependent on cloud coverage. Some days when it’s very cloudy, it feels like day light never really came. But one thing that’s important to know about the North is that going from dark to light is very, very gradual. At high noon, it really looks like sunset. So in effect the entire day, if you could even call it day, is a 5 hour-long sunrise or sunset. This is why we’re treated with such spectacular skies. Further south, sunrise and sunset could be just as spectacular, but they happen so fast that the spectacular moments are fleeting. Unless your eye are peeled looking at the sky, you’d miss it. Here, just look out the window any time during those 5 hours.

I tried to figure out a good way to explain this scientifically, and I found these graphics online. If you spent time in the tropics, you’ll recall that sunrise and sunset happen very fast, and at noon the sun is directly overhead. Here, it takes a lot more time for the sun to rise or fall a few degrees relative to the horizon, and the sun always come at a sharp angle, even in the summer. Of course, in the summer, the entire path of the sun shift up, so there is more daylight. Now, the sun’s path is mostly below the horizon.

Sun's Path in the Equator versus in the Polar Region

Another way to explain it is, the sun makes a path relative to the horizon over a 24 hour period, and the path is a sine wave. The horizon, or the x-axis, moves up and down based on the season, and the height of the wave is determined by your latitude. So you have the two variables that determine the sun’s path clearly visible:

The Sun's Path As I Imagine It

No matter how you look at it, daylight is a good thing. I’m looking forward to the Spring. Meanwhile, since there’s nothing I can do about it, I’ll just continue to snap away at the sky.

8 Comments
  1. Ellen Crocker #

    Beautiful pictures, Winston.

    Even after my parents had emigrated to the US and had lived here many days, the solstice was important. “Naa gaar vi mot solen,” she said. (We’re now heading toward the sun)

    December 18, 2011
    • Yes, the worst is behind us. The days will soon get longer, and there’ll be snow! Then, spring, and glorious summer.

      December 19, 2011
  2. Wonderful pictures! But your explanation about the December solstice is really overly complicated 🙂 You are trying to explain it with the sun`s path. Which actually isn`t a path at all. It seems like it is. Take a look here. Figure 6h-5 explains extremely simple why the sunsets and sunrises are so long where you are now 🙂

    December 18, 2011
  3. I forgot to place the link 🙂 Here it is: http://www.physicalgeography.net/fundamentals/6h.html

    December 18, 2011
  4. Dear freinds! I wish you be happy on this day and forever as with us 22nd of December is the WISH EXECUTE DAY! Very old holidays in Russia  when it is possible to change ones life in reality. We can reborn so as the Sun does.
    For 3 days before and 3 days after there are lots of power energy that comes from the Sun to the Earth. So we can clear our mind and home so as the sole from the old things
    And they say that the plans preparing during these days have to be execute completely!
    Best wishes!!!
    Wonderful article, Winston!

    December 19, 2011
  5. Winston,

    I have been waiting to hear how you experience the winter solstice from the Arctic circle. The difference in the length of ‘day’ has always intrigued me. I have a friend in El Salvador (relatively close to the equator) and his days are the pretty much the same throughout the year. When I moved from Chicago to Florida I immediately noticed how the length of the daylight hours were less extreme as you moved closer to the equator.

    Hang in there, in the summer you will have plenty of sun!

    Joel

    December 19, 2011
  6. Kjersti Rosen #

    Beautiful pictures! I remember when I lived in Finnmark (even further north in Norway than where you are), the sun didn’t go above the horizon for 3-4 weeks. I didn’t know any different then, but think I’d have a hard time with it now. When the sun “returned” we’d get the “solfri” or “sun vacation” and get to take the afternoon off school:)
    In January, when the sun starts to “return”, the light is beautiful and it’s lovely when the days get longer. You’re over the worst of the darkness now. Enjoy the Northern lights and you’ll have plenty of daylight in the spring and summer!

    Kjersti

    December 21, 2011
    • Yes Kjersti, it only gets better from here!

      December 21, 2011

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