Give Thanks for the Winter Solstice. You Might Not Be Here Without It.

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On Dec. 21, or Thursday this year, the sun will hug the horizon. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it will seem to barely rise — hardly peeking above a city’s skyline or a forest’s snow-covered evergreens — before it swiftly sets.

For months, the orb’s arc across the sky has been slumping, shortening each day.

In New York City, for example, the sun will be in the sky for just over nine hours — roughly six hours less than in June at the summer solstice. The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, before the sun reverses course and climbs higher into the sky. (At the same time, places like Australia in the Southern Hemisphere mark the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.)

This is a good opportunity to imagine what such a day might look like if we had evolved on another planet where the sun would take a different dance across the sky. You might want to feel thankful for the solstices and seasons we do have, or we might not be here to witness them at all.

The solstices occur because most planets do not spin upright, or perpendicular to their orbits.

The Earth, for example, slouches 23.5 degrees on a tilted axis. This leaves the planet’s North Pole pointed toward the North Star over relatively long periods of time, even as Earth makes its yearlong migration around the sun. That means the Northern Hemisphere will spend half the year tilted slightly toward the sun, bathing in direct sunlight during summer’s long, blissful days, and half the year cooling off as it leans slightly away from the sun during winter’s short, frigid days. Dec. 21 marks the day when the North Pole is most tilted away from the sun.

But every planet slouches at different angles.

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Winter may just be getting started, but if you’re ready for more sunlight, you won’t have much longer to wait. Dec. 21 is the winter solstice: the shortest day and longest night of the year here in Earth’s northern hemisphere.

Starting Friday, the sun will be up for a few seconds longer each day, signaling the start of our slow but steady march toward spring. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter is just getting into high gear. Learn more about the solstice and why it’s not the coldest day of the year in our scientific guide below.

1. What happens on the winter solstice?

The December solstice marks the exact moment when the sun’s most direct rays reach their southernmost point south of the equator, along the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. The time and date of the solstice change slightly each year, but this year’s solstice occurs at 11:28 a.m. Eastern Time on Dec. 21.

On the winter solstice, Earth’s northern hemisphere reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun. (NASA)

The reason we have a solstice — and seasons — is because the Earth is tilted on its axis of rotation by about 23.5 degrees. This tilt causes each hemisphere to receive different amounts of sunlight throughout the year as our planet orbits the sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, we see the sun take its lowest and shortest path across the southern sky, and at local noon, your shadow will be the longest of the year.

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