Earliest Sunset, Latest Sunrise

Why does the Earliest Sunset come before the Winter Solstice and the Latest Sunrise after?


Why does the Earliest Sunrise come before the Summer Solstice and the Latest Sunset after?

Ever wonder? I have. And aside from some hand-wavy explanations, I’ve never been able to explain this very well. Here’s the best explanation I have seen yet, provided in the December 2007 issue of Sky & Telescope, p. 55:

You’d think the earliest sunset would come on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, at the winter solstice. But in fact, the day-night cycle shifts back and forth a little with the seasons, due to the tilt of Earth’s axis and the ellipticity of Earth’s orbit. At the beginning of December, sunrise, midday, and sunset all happen a little earlier than they “should”, and in January they run a little late. So the earliest sunset ends up being two or three weeks before the solstice, and the latest sunrise is two or three weeks afterward. The exact dates depend on your latitude.

Continuing along that same line of thought…

At the beginning of June, sunrise, midday, and sunset all happen a little later than they “should” and in July they run a little earlier. So the earliest sunrise ends up being about a week before the solstice, and the latest sunset is about a week afterwards. The exact dates depend on your latitude.

I know, I know. You still have a question. “Why are the dates of earliest sunrise and latest sunset closer to the summer solstice than the dates of earliest sunset and latest sunrise to the winter solstice?” Good question. I think it has everything to do with the fact that the Earth is near aphelion at the time of the summer solstice, and thus moving most slowly in its orbit around the Sun (the Earth’s orbit is slightly elliptical and not circular). That means that the Sun is moving slowest against the background stars and thus the accumulated difference between the sidereal day and solar day is the smallest at that time of year. That means the spread of days between earliest sunrise and latest sunset is less. Conversely, at the winter solstice, Earth is near perihelion, and therefore it is moving most quickly in its orbit around the Sun. That means that the Sun is moving fastest against the background stars and thus the accumulated difference between the sidereal day and solar day is largest at that time of year. That means the spread of days between earliest sunset and latest sunrise is more.

Here in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, where the latitude is just shy of 43˚ N and the longitude is just a tad over 90˚ W, the earliest sunset this year is today, Tuesday, December 8, 2020, at 4:25:49 p.m.

Latest sunrise in 2021 will be on both Saturday, January 2 and Sunday, January 3 at 7:31:51 a.m.

Pause to consider that if we were on year-round daylight saving time, latest sunrise wouldn’t be until 8:31:51 a.m.

My preference would be to stay on standard time year-round, as Arizona does.

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