Here comes winter.
The winter solstice – which marks the beginning of astronomical winter in the Northern Hemisphere – is Saturday. It’s the precise moment at which the Northern Hemisphere is tilted farthest from the sun.
The solstice occurs at the same instant everywhere on Earth: Here in the United States, it happens at 11:19 p.m. EST Saturday (10:19 p.m. CT, 9:19 p.m. MT, and 8:19 p.m. PT).
At that moment, the sun’s rays are directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, a line of latitude that circles the Earth in the Southern Hemisphere.
Though the solstice is the astronomical beginning of winter, meteorologists view winter as starting Dec. 1, which is the start of the coldest three months in the Northern Hemisphere.
However, most locations don’t have their earliest sunset or latest sunrise on the solstice. Those events occur either weeks before or after Dec. 21.
The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year and can fall anywhere from Dec. 20-23, but the 21st and 22nd are the most common dates, according to PennLive.
Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain, conducts a ceremony as druids, pagans and revelers gather in the center of Stonehenge, England, hoping to see the sun rise, as they take part in a winter solstice ceremony. (Photo: Matt Cardy, Getty Images)
Additionally, the solstice is typically not the coldest day of the year. There is a bit of a lag between the solstice and the day with the coldest average temperatures for most spots in the U.S.
This lag in temperature occurs because even though the amount of daylight is increasing, the Earth’s surface continues to lose more heat than it receives from the sun. In most locations across the U.S., the minimum daily temperature occurs around two or three weeks later, in early to mid-January.
SOURCE NOAA and infoplease.com (Photo: USA TODAY)
For example, the coldest days in Boston, on average, are Jan. 17-26. In Chicago, it’s Jan. 17-20, and in Miami, it’s Jan. 2-22. By the end of January, more heat finally begins arriving than leaving, and days slowly start to warm up.
The Earth’s tilted axis causes the seasons. During the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, the land north of the equator is tilted away from the sun, which lowers the amount of the sun’s energy warming the Northern Hemisphere.
Of course, it’s all opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where Dec. 21 marks the beginning of astronomical summer.
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And why is the Earth tilted? It’s probably the result of collisions with various protoplanets and other massive objects during the formation of the solar system billions of years ago, according to NASA.
One of the most famous solstice celebrations occurs at the ancient Stonehenge ruins in Wiltshire, England, where druids, pagans and other revelers gather each year to celebrate the event.
The winter and summer solstices, along with the equinoxes, loom large in myth and folklore.
“Culturally, the solstices and equinoxes are typically used to denote either the beginnings of the seasons or the center points of the seasons,” as in England, said Rick Kline of the Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility at Cornell University.
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
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