Winter solstice: what it really means

Storm Team Headlines

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — I have a few favorite days of the year. The winter solstice is one of those days. Not necessarily because I like winter, but because it marks the day when daylight starts increasing in Central New York. Not by much mind you…just a few seconds per day through early January. But hey, any gain is a win in my book!

The maximum elevation of the sun is around 24 degrees at solar noon on the day of the winter solstice. For comparison, the elevation approaches 70 degrees on the first day of summer. It’s not magic. It’s science. You can see the change of day and night through the course of the year in the animation below.

You can also see the change itself. Make a mental note about where the sun rises and sets this time of year. Then note where these same things take place on the first day of summer. That’s quite a difference! Also, note how your shadow changes. Shadows are long in the winter and almost non-existent around Noon in the summer with the sun nearly overhead.

Of course, the amount of daylight changes significantly between the first day of winter and the first day of summer. Can you imagine living in Alaska? There is virtually no daylight around the winter solstice and virtually no night in the state around the summer solstice. The tweet below shows a video of what the first day of winter looked like in Fairbanks, Alaska.

You can get the latest sunrise and sunset numbers anytime in the Storm Team almanac. In my 48 years on this planet, I’ve learned that the earliest sunset is around 4:30 p.m. in early December and the latest sunset is around 8:50 p.m. in July.

Why is the coldest part of winter not until January or February?

Simply there is a lag between the shortest day and the coldest time. Think about when you turn on your air conditioner. Is it instantaneously cold? No, there is a delay on when the air conditioner turns on and when the coldest temperature is achieved.

The same holds true in the atmosphere. While the shortest amount of daylight is the winter solstice, the amount of cold air is still building up and will be unleashed a month or two down the road.

In spite of increasing daylight after the solstice and more solar energy entering the Earth’s atmosphere, there is still more solar energy escaping into space. Consequently, temperatures keep decreasing into January and February, at which point, the amount of incoming energy exceeds the outgoing energy, and global temperatures begin to warm.

One thing that always gets me through the coldest days is that the sun always wins. It has to get warmer.

Bottom line….enjoy the increased daylight and know after some cold days in our immediate future, we’re heading toward the warmth of summer.



Dave Longley was a meteorologist for NewsChannel 9 for 25 years. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005 and speech problems from the disease caused him to take on a role behind the scenes at NewsChannel 9 in 2017. You can always reach out to Dave anytime at davelongley@localsyr.com

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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