Winter Solstice and How Oregon Coast Sunsets are an Illusion
Published 12/19/2016 at 4:33 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff
(Oregon Coast) – Winter officially begins on Wednesday and this means the shortest day of the year. Or does it? There's a lot about the winter solstice that people don't know, and even more about the reality of sunsets that is actually quite shocking. On top of it all, sundown will be a little different on the Oregon coast than the rest of the state.
Jim Todd, Director of Space Science Education at Portland's OMSI, said winter officially happens on Wednesday, December 21st at 2:44 a.m. here in Oregon.
“This date is the Winter Solstice, the day on which the Earth's northern pole is tipped away from the sun,” Todd said.
If you're looking at the sun from Portland, Todd said you'll see it reach its lowest southern point in the sky at 21.5 degrees south. This, in turn, will create something awesome for the Oregon coast (which luckily is predicted to be at least partly sunny that day).
“Because of the low angle of the sun's arc, it will produce the longest and most spectacular sunrises and sunsets of the year,” Todd said.
December 21 is often thought of as the shortest day of the year, but the big surprise is that it's not. It's one of three shortest days of the year. Todd said from December 18 - 21, this region will have nearly 8.5 hours of daylight each day.
Another startling fact about these three days: sunset actually happens about ten minutes later on the Oregon coast than it does inland. So if you want a more interesting and longer sunset – as well as a tad more daylight – head to the beaches that day.
Granted, the exact moment the sun goes down is tricky: it depends on where you are in relation to mountainous areas. The almanac always bases sunset times on a flat horizon and unimpeded view of the sunset. Those in downtown Portland or even SE Portland will see the sun go down much sooner because of the west hills, but Beaverton will only have the distant coast range to block the sunset.
However, for the Oregon coast, the almanac sunset times are always lumped in with Portland and the I-5 corridor. Because the shoreline is about 75 miles west of most valley towns, that time is approximately ten minutes later.
Oregon Coast Beach Connection put this to the test once and found that the sunset happened seven minutes later than the time listed by NOAA. This could vary on other days for other reasons as well. Of course, sun rise will happen a little later as well.
There are two serious shockers about sunsets, however – and this is true of the entire planet and not just the Oregon coast. Both wild facts mean that sunset and sunrise are actually an illusion. They don't happen when you think they do.
First, according to famed scientist (and TV personality) Neil deGrasse Tyson, we're actually seeing the sun a whole eight minutes later. Light takes that long to travel through space from the sun to Earth.
Even wilder, sunset and sunrise are actually a kind of projection. It has to do with the curvature of the Earth and the way our atmosphere bends the light upwards if the sun is below a certain point. It's one of many aspects of what is called atmospheric refraction.
According to his show “Cosmos: A TimeSpace Odyssey,” his exact words say it best.
“That sun – it's not really there,” Tyson said. “It won't actually be above the horizon for another two minutes. Sunrise is an illusion. Earth's atmosphere bends the incoming rays, like a lens or a glass of water. So we see the image of the sun projected above the horizon before the physical sun is actually there.”
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