The winter solstice occurs Dec. 21 at 6:12 a.m. EST, ushering in the first day of winter, the earliest since 1896. Solstice comes from the Latin “sol” and “sistere” meaning “sun stands still,” and refers to the fact that, for a few days, sunrise, sunset and the track of the Sun through the heavens changes little as seen through the windows of Spaceship Earth. The winter solstice is the point where the Sun reaches its southern most declination (angle from the celestial equator.) It is also the point where the Sun has the shortest trek from horizon to horizon, resulting in the fewest hours of daylight.
Risking blasphemy, I should point out that the Sun is basically still and that it is Spaceship Earth that is wobbling and careening wildly around it at breakneck speed. So the Sun’s southern most declination (for us in the Northern Hemisphere) is actually the time when we’re — hold on tight! – tilted farthest away from the Sun. At the winter solstice, the North Pole is pointed 23.5 degrees away from Sol’s rays. The Arctic polar circle will see neither sunrise nor sunset — 24 hours of darkness on the winter solstice.
According to December 2011 Sun data from San Francisco, this little solstice hesitation lasts for seven days. December 18 through December 24, 2011 each saw 9 hours and 33 minutes of daylight. And for all you clock watchers out there, remember to measure the hours of daylight you have to measure the time between sunrise and sunset. You can’t just look at the time of sunset, which is actually earlier at the beginning of December than it is at solstice.
One way to enjoy these long nights approaching the solstice is to get outside and watch for the annual Geminid meteor shower. The moon is going to be very cooperative this year allowing for dark skies, and it looks like cloud cover across Western North Carolina, especially on Thursday, Dec. 13, is going to be minimal.
The Geminids are a pretty reliable meteor shower, and if you can find a dark place, away from light pollution, you may be see 50 or more “shooting stars” per hour during peak. Peak is predicted to be between late night Thursday (Dec. 13) and dawn Friday (Dec. 14.)
Geminids are noted for their brightness and for producing different colors from white to blue and red. They radiate from the constellation Gemini, which rises early in the eastern sky, allowing for decent late evening viewing. But the peak generally isn’t till around 2 a.m. when Gemini is high overhead. A reclining lawn chair is a very useful piece of equipment — just settle in with a sleeping bag or blanket and “look up” — the meteors can appear anywhere in the night sky.