Year's Earliest Sunset not on Year's Shortest Day
This may come as a big surprise, but the earliest sunset of the year doesn't fall on the same day as the December 21st solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In Denver, Colorado, for instance, the earliest sunset comes on December 7, two weeks before the winter solstice. At 40 degrees latitude, Denver represents the middle latitudes of the continental United States.
At latitudes appreciably south of Denver, the earliest sunset of the year comes before Dec. 7; north of Denver, it comes after. At Honolulu, Hawaii (21.6 degrees north latitude), the earliest sunset happens around November 25. Going northward, to Circle, Alaska (65.8 degrees north latitude), the earliest sunset occurs on December 19, quite close to the winter solstice.
Earliest Equatorial Sunset
Let's go to the equator (0 degrees latitude), where the daylight hours are virtually the same for every single day of the year. There, the earliest sunset of the year falls on November 3. The reader may object, "This makes no sense. At the equator, where the daylight hours are the same every day of the year, wouldn't it follow that the sunset would take place at the same time every day?"
The answer would be yes, if in addtion, noon happened at the same time for every day of the year. But it doesn't. The earliest noon of the year occurs on or near November 3. Therefore, since the earliest noon takes place in early November, the earliest sunset (and the earliest sunrise) has to be on this same date at the equator, where daylight hours remain constant throughout the year.
Definition of Noon
A definition of noon may be in order. By noon, we mean midday, the instant when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky for the day. We call this "solar noon," to distinguish it from "clock noon." The clock presumes the sun returns to its noontime position in the sky in exact periods of 24 hours. However, the period of the day as measured from solar noon to solar noon rarely measures exactly 24 hours.
Discrepancy between Clock & Sun
It's the discrepancy between the clock and sun that causes the day of earliest sunset to arrive before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. I should emphasize by "shortest" day, I mean shortest period of daylight. For several months after the day of the earliest solar noon (as read by the clock), the day as measured from solar noon to solar noon EXCEEDS 24 hours. Not by a lot, mind you, but the discrepancy accumulates. On the December solstice, solar noon comes some 14 to 15 minutes later (by the clock) than it does on November 3.
Therefore, here's the story for Quito, Equador, a city residing on the Earth's equator:
Date Sunrise Solar Noon Sunset
Nov. 3 5:54 a.m. 11:58 a.m. 6:01 p.m.
Dec. 21 6:08 a.m. 12:12 p.m. 6:16 p.m.
Going North of the Equator
As we go north of the equator, the daylight hours get shorter daily as we approach the winter solstice. The farther north you live, the daily loss in sunlight is all the more accentuated. At different latitudes, the earliest sunset occurs on different dates, but it all hinges on the discrepancy between clock noon and solar noon.
Near the time of the winter solstice, the daily variation in daylight hours becomes very small -- so small, in fact, that the itty-bitty lessening of the daylight hours can't overcome the advancing clock time of solar noon and sunset. At farther northern latitudes, the greater variation in daylight hours holds off the date of the earliest sunset, assuring a closer correlation between the earliest sunset and the winter solstice.
A Tale of Three Cities
The tables below give the sunrise, solar noon and sunset times for Honolulu, Hawaii; Denver, Colorado; and Circle, Alaska. The bold inscription refers to the date and time of the earliest sunset. If you wish to know the earliest sunset for your locality, try the almanacs at Old Farmer's Almanac or the US Naval Observatory. Click here for a printable monthly calendar. For another article relating to the earliest sunset, I invite you to read The Equation of Time.
Date Sunrise Solar Noon Sunset Daylight Hours
Nov. 3 6:35 a.m. 12:15 p.m. 5:55 p.m. 11 hrs. 20 min.
Nov. 25 6:49 a.m. 12:18 p.m. 5:48 p.m. 10 hrs. 59 min.
Dec. 21 7:04 a.m. 12:30 p.m. 5:55 p.m. 10 hrs. 51 min.
Date Sunrise Solar Noon Sunset Daylight Hours
Nov. 3 6:31 a.m. 11:43 a.m. 4:56 p.m. 10 hrs. 25 min.
Dec. 7 7:07 a.m. 11:51 a.m. 4:35 p.m. 9 hrs. 28 min.
Dec. 21 7:17 a.m. 11:58 a.m. 4:39 p.m 9 hrs. 22 min.
Date Sunrise Solar Noon Sunset Daylight Hours
Nov. 3 8:38 a.m. 12:20 p.m. 4:00 p.m. 7 hrs. 22 min.
Dec. 19 11:05 a.m. 12:33 p.m. 2:02 p.m. 2 hrs. 57 min.
Dec. 21 11:06 a.m. 12:34 p.m. 2:03 p.m. 2 hrs. 57 min.
Critiques | Translate
npecanhuk (77671) 2009-12-20 14:10
That's a beautiful picture with magnificent colors and interesting silhouettes!
This attractive image was so nicely complemented by your note that I really enjoyed!
TFS - congratulations!
weetrees (79) 2009-12-20 14:11
Keen and interesting note adds to the picture
captured the stillness of the moment just perfectly
jaywalker (16105) 2009-12-20 14:15
Hi Tom, A wonderfully captured photo & the high POV works perfectly, a truly gorgeous sky offering warmth & the reflections in the water add beauty, TFS, kind regards Wilson.
buscape (6219) 2009-12-20 14:23
I have read, that in Switzerland the earliest sunset was on th 11th of December and that was really a surprise to me. You have explained this phenomenon with a very detailed note. Thank you!
Your view from high POV over the icy river is wonderful. I think you have found the perfect moment for these stunning afterglow and thanks to the reflections on the river we can enjoy it twice.
Bergenphotos (2960) 2009-12-20 14:38
The title was very interesting and quickly got my attention. I'm glad that you explained it well in the note, so now I've learned something new. Here in Bergen (61 degrees north) the earliest sunset will be around 16th or 17th December I guess. Thanks for sharing it. The picture is very suitable and has a nice motive. The sky has a wonderful orange colour which gives a good reflection in the water.
Regards from Bergen, a winter wonderland!
bostankorkulugu (42480) 2009-12-20 14:55
the colour palette is mesmerising... a beautiful winter scene in these warm colours tom... cheers...
emilbo (22616) 2009-12-20 14:59
Magnifique photo et merveilleuses couleurs orangées. À première vue on a l'impression que la photo est à l'envers. Un plaisir pour les yeux et superbes silhouettes.
lucasgalodoido (23649) 2009-12-20 15:46
very beautiful this sunset, and impressive the orange colors of sky, very well captured by your lens. I like of the lake reflection and silhouettes too. Great job, my friend.
Urs (14082) 2009-12-20 18:15
Wow, what a blood red sunset!!! Congrats Tom - even you helped the sunset with the saturation - I cannot prove it - I do not care that much, it's simply beautiful. Excellent vibrant colors and high sharpness - well done
Dyerco (10185) 2009-12-20 19:05
A very informative note with a stunning sunset shot to boot. The colour is beautiful and the water is so calm. I think I will just stand on this riverbank and watch for a while.
bracasha75 (24591) 2009-12-20 19:49
Soi beautiful sunset colors and nice look in the distance.The horizont is huged in warm colors on Dezember cold.
Gerrit (52283) 2009-12-20 23:05
beautiful pohoto and surprising information.
Wonderful sunset colors.
Longroute (19396) 2009-12-20 23:17
A freezing sunset I see!
But nonetheless enchanting and a bit malincoly too, the land looks really sleeping under the snow...
The composition is well built and very expressive and moody. The reflections on the water (or is it ice?) very nice.
It seems that the sun setting so early prompted on your part a serious and exaustive reserch on this matter! (:-)
Well that's the real meaning of "Christmas" day in the northern countries. Seeing the sun setting earlier and earlier they feared it was going to die. So they estabilshed a day to encourage the sun to resist in his fight against the spirit of darkness... big festivals where held in Scandinavia and England... later Christ substituted the sun...
Let's resist ourselves too, soon the days will start again to grow!
Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
danos (102490) 2009-12-21 0:55
very nice this earliest sunset view of the year with the reflections to create a spectacular sight.I have surprised with your incredible note about the Winter solstice. Here in Greece the biggest night is on Dec 21 as i know.Excellent and scientific knowledges.
Have a nice week,Danos
snunney (105495) 2009-12-21 1:47
A fine composition with some lovely reflections. However, its this gorgeous orange tones that really make the image a winner. Thanks for sharing and also for the interesting notes.
jpinkham (870) 2009-12-21 4:23
Tom, congratulations on a very fine sunset post. I really love the colors, and this is very well exposed. The wide angle and elevated point of view really enhance the composition. I do wish your camera's EXIF data were displayed. It would be helpful to know your settings and whether you used a tripod, as well. That's a minoor point, however, and details you can address later if you choose.
In any case, great job!@
yedirenk (11244) 2009-12-21 6:40
an extraordinary moment..color tones,reflections and snowy nature are impressive.fantastic and romantic scene..great shot..TFS
Bluejeans (64251) 2009-12-21 11:17
Ola Tom ,
Linda foto em tons de laranja , que belo final de dia , lindos reflexos, gostei muito das silhuetas, parabéns!!
Um abraço Gonçalo
edge (7409) 2009-12-21 15:32
Hello Tom. First my compliments to you on the notes you provided. Certainly informative and interesting to read.
As for your picture, a really great capture of the late afternoon sun with its red rays on the water and the delightful mirror of the bridge. This latter reflection is most noteworthy as one can barely see the bridge which makes fo a cause for discovery. Very well done. Regards, Roger
jplebrun (21208) 2009-12-21 16:18
superbe photo de ce coucher de soleil avec le reflet du pont dans l'eau, les couleurs sont magnifiques, bravo. Joyeux temps des fêtes.
burraburra (1219) 2009-12-22 3:12
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
As for your sunset photograph I vote - Yes, Yes, Yes.
Wonderful composition. However, for your note it took me quite a while (few glasses of white wine did not help me). Love your note, once I read it a few times :))
John_F_Kennedy (43763) 2009-12-22 3:46
Stunning orange colours and the details of the reflections make it. A very good composition of this wonderful shot.
rodgerg (55767) 2009-12-22 10:22
A very original, very creative and very efficience sunset. Superb color in the sky and too in the water with the beautiful coloured reflections. Nice reflections of the bridge too. Excellent FG which give depht to the image.
Charo (51212) 2010-01-01 13:19
Wonderful that color in the sky and its reflections in the water. A beautiful and intense sunset.
I hope you had a good Christmas and hope that in the New Year will fulfill all your dreams.
pablominto (53746) 2010-01-03 1:50
Then I learn something today too..!
And the sunset is pure beauty, magnified as the sky reflects so nicely from the calm river...
On this first weekend of 2010 I also wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous new year!
Wandering_Dan (3449) 2010-01-04 10:17
Hi, Tom -
A great note to go along with a striking photo! It creates a nice mood, and the way the bridge superstructure is really seen only in reflection is quite amazing.
I've been made aware this year of the discrepancy between the shortest day and the earliest sunset, so your note is even more of interest to me. In San Francisco, by the way, Dec. 5th is the earliest sunset.
jmcl (14535) 2010-01-07 7:21
The absolute stillness is stunning .. the tone is beautiful .. wonderful dimension into the image .. very wonderful! take care, John
ktanska (28995) 2010-01-07 23:41
Beautiful sunset view showing the river, reflection and already some ice, adding details to foreground.
Yes, it was the title that caught my attention. Interesting note giving new information to me. I've never noticed that, probably because here at 61,5 degrees north it hardly makes a difference. I had to check it and indeed at Dec. 21st sun sets here one minute later than a couple of days before.
ChrisJ (117201) 2010-01-12 19:28
A spectacular sunset, taken from a superb high vantage point, with good warm cold color contrasts, betwen the blue & orange, & excellent graphism, silhouettes & reflections. Tfs!
denisn72 (8300) 2010-01-21 16:41
Very catchy colours and powerful contrasts and reflections. The atmosphere is really peaceful. Interesting note too! Well done Tom!
macjake (71729) 2010-01-24 9:57
you present to us a beautiful orange sunset over the horizon. I really like the reflection of the train railroad bridge.
jemaflor (102213) 2010-01-27 12:14
So lovely color and light, well captured, nice result with also these reflections, very beautiful result.
boa (7543) 2010-02-07 13:06
it's almost magical light and colors! Wonderful color tones and reflections. The ice and the tree branches in the foreground gives a good depth, well done !
Have a nice evening.
yeln (11516) 2010-06-21 21:16
beautiful colorful photo with excelent strong colors and colors contrast. good sharpness and very impressive composition. good light management. bravo!!