StarDateDecember 21, 2011
Seen from most of the United States, the Sun is a pretty wan companion at this time of year. It stays quite low in the south, never climbing more than a third of the way up the sky for most of the country. And it’s in view for fewer hours than at any other time of the year — as few as eight for those in Minnesota and Maine, and even fewer in Alaska.
In fact, today is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere — the winter solstice. It marks the beginning of winter.
Yet it’s also a turning point. After the solstice, the Sun slowly begins to work its way northward. The days get a bit longer, and the Sun scoots a little higher across the sky.
We won’t actually feel the difference for a while, though. In part, that’s because there’s still a lot more darkness than daylight. And in part it’s because the Sun is still so low in the sky that its rays have to pass through a thick layer of atmosphere to reach us. Most of the Sun’s energy is going to the southern hemisphere, where the Sun stands high in the sky.
So it’ll take a few weeks more for the days to start to get warmer, working from south to north.
Incidentally, the word “solstice” means “Sun stands still.” It indicates that the Sun rises and sets at the same points on the horizon for a few days. It takes a while to notice that it’s starting to move again — headed back toward our half of the world. It’ll reach its northern standstill — the summer solstice — on June 20th.