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Winter Solstice and Its Astronomy Surprises: What It Means for Portland, Oregon, the Coast

Published 12/21/2017 at 3:45 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Winter Solstice and Its Astronomy Surprises: What It Means for Portland, Oregon, the Coast

(Oregon Coast) - For Oregon, winter officially starts this morning at 8:28 a.m. This day is the winter solstice: the day on which the Earth's northern pole is tipped away from the sun. It's also the shortest day of the year – well, sort of.

For the Oregon coast, it all means something a little different: there's another reason to check out today's sunset there, and for the next few days.

The interesting misconception about the shortest day of the year is that it's plural. Today is one of a few days that are the absolute shortest, according Jim Todd of Portland's OMSI.

“On December 18 - 21, we will have nearly 8.5 hours of daylight to enjoy,” he said. “As seen from Portland, the sun will reach its lowest southern point in the sky at 21.5 degrees on the horizon.”

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Todd said because of the low angle of the sun's arc, it will produce the longest and most spectacular sunrises and sunsets of the year.

On the Oregon coast, this translates to even longer and more spectacular sunsets over the ocean. The great fiery ball lingers a tad longer than other times of the year, and it's more apt to create some bigger, wilder colors.

From now through this weekend, the north coast is looking at about eight hours and 39 minutes of daylight. Those numbers change slightly as you go south.

For example:

Sunrise today in Cannon Beach is at 7:54 a.m., four minutes later than the week before. It sets at 4:34 p.m., which is two minutes later than the week before. That is 8 hours and 39 minutes of daylight. That short figure remains for two more days.

Sunrise in Cannon Beach Friday and Saturday is at 7:55 a..m., while sunset is at 4:34 p.m. on Friday and then one minute later on Saturday.

About 100 miles to the south, Lincoln City will see sunrise today at a slightly different time: at 7:51 a.m. Sunset there will be at 4:37 p.m., making for eight hours and 46 minutes of daylight – slightly different from Cannon Beach and Portland.

Various sources can differ slightly on these exact numbers, however.

If you want to add yet another trippy layer to all this: consider that sunset actually happens a few minutes later on the coast than in Portland. This too changes as you head south. Oregon Coast Beach Connection tested this once in Warrenton and found sunset there happened seven minutes later than the almanac times listed for Portland.

If you want to add still another bizarre layer to the science of sunsets on the Oregon coast, you'll be shocked to discover when you see the sunset go down is actually an illusion. See Winter Solstice and How Oregon Coast Sunsets are an Illusion.

Another fascinating illusion comes into play this day as well, according to Todd.

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“On the winter solstice the Sun from our Earth perspective appears to stand still,” Todd said. “This was of great concern to our ancestors because they believed that all heavenly objects were gods and that if the Sun god was displeased, it might just continue to keep rising and setting farther south until it eventually disappeared.”

For those who can brave these cold nights either on the Oregon coast or inland, there's also a reward.

“For those who received an exciting new telescope or binoculars for Christmas, this is a perfect opportunity to view the brilliant moon above the southern horizon after sunset,” Todd said. “In the morning sky, Jupiter and Mars are emerging into the eastern night sky before sunrise.”

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