- The December solstice of 2018 happens on Friday at 5:23 p.m. ET, marking the first day of winter for the Northern Hemisphere.
- The solstice is known as the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, where it marks the arrival of summer.
- Solstices mark the shortest and longest days of the year.
- Earth‘s tilted axis and its orbit around the sun – not the planet’s rotation – are the driving forces behind a solstice.
The December solstice of 2018 happens at 5:23 p.m. ET on Friday.
For people who live in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, it will be the shortest day of the year. It also signals the arrival of winter and a gradual advance toward the spring season, whose beginning is marked by an equinox.
For those in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s exactly the opposite: The December solstice marks the start of summer, when days have reached their longest and brightest. This means daylight hours will start to shrink and sunlight will weaken through the March equinox and up until the June solstice.
Two things drive this all-important seasonal shuffle: Earth’s tilted axis and the planet’s orbit around the sun.
How the December solstice works
Earth orbits the sun once every 365 days and six hours and rotates once a day on a tilted axis.
That tilt is about 23.45 degrees (for now), and it bathes different parts of the world with various intensities of light over the course of a year. Meanwhile, Earth’s rotation keeps the sun’s heat even, sort of like a 7,917-mile-wide rotisserie chicken made of rock and a little water.
From the view on the ground in the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice is when the sun’s high point in the sky, called a zenith, reaches its minimum or low point close to the horizon. From space, it’s when the sun’s most direct rays creep the farthest south, to a line called the Tropic of Capricorn:
If you stand on the Tropic of Capricorn at midday on Friday, the sun will appear more or less directly overhead. Your shadow will also be at its absolute minimum. (Solstice literally means “sun-stopping,” according to TimeAndDate.com.)
The length of daylight will be at its longest in the Southern Hemisphere too. This gets more extreme the farther south you go from the equator, since there’s more of Earth’s atmosphere to refract sunlight the farther you are from the equator.
But this moment won’t last, since the Earth makes its way around the sun at a speed of roughly 66,600 mph.
How Earth’s axis and orbit drive the seasons
Our planet’s orbit is elliptical, and its center of gravity is slightly offset from the sun.
This means the time it takes to cycle through the seasons isn’t perfectly divvied up:
As the graphic above shows, it takes 89 days after the December solstice for Earth to reach the March equinox – that’s when the most direct rays of the sun have slipped back up to the equator. Another 92 days and 19 hours later, it will be the June solstice. At that point, the sun’s most direct rays reach the Tropic of Cancer, summer starts for the Northern Hemisphere, and winter begins for those south of the equator.
Then it takes 93 days and 14 hours for the sun’s zenith to get back to the equator and kick off the September equinox, followed by 89 days and 19 hours to complete the cycle with the December solstice.
During each of these phases, certain regions of Earth’s surface get more sunlight, and energy gets stored or sapped from water sources, leading to the creation of seasonal temperatures and weather variations.
What the seasons look like from space
Some satellites fly in a geosynchronous orbit, which means they orbit the Earth and move fast enough to hover above one spot on the planet.
This creates a great opportunity to photograph the Earth over the course of the year and see how the angle of sun changes.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center created the animation below using geosynchronous-satellite images taken over Africa, and it clearly shows the seasonal progression.
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This story was adapted from a similar post about the June solstice.
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