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Winter Solstice Approaches: What It Means for Washington / Oregon Coast

Published 12/17/21 at 5:32 PM PST
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Winter Solstice Approaches: What It Means for Washington / Oregon Coast

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(Manzanita, Oregon) – There is more to the beach than just the ocean. There is definitely a connection between astronomy and the coastlines of Oregon and Washington. (Above: Port Orford, photo courtesy Manuela Durson - see Manuela Durson Fine Arts for more)

Winter solstice is one of those instances where stellar science comes into play, interacting with Oregon coast and Washington coast weather, and even affecting the sunsets we see.

Jim Todd, planetarium manager with Portland's OMSI (and astronomy expert), said the Winter Solstice officially begins this coming Tuesday, December 21 at 7:59 a.m. for the Pacific Time Zone. It's the day when when the Earth's northern pole is tipped away from the sun, and it's the time of year that produces the most intense sunset colors.

“As seen from Portland, the sun will reach its lowest southern point in the sky at 21 & ½ degrees on the southern horizon on the winter solstice,” Todd said. “Because of the low angle of the sun's arc, it will produce the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets of the year. On December 17-25, we will have nearly 8 hours and 42 minutes of daylight to enjoy.”

This means if you're at Oregon / Washington coast spots like Forks, Bandon, Gold Beach, Yachats, Westport or Seaside, you'll want to be snapping pics of those clear days with sunsets. You'll get some remarkable colors.

This doesn't always mean the best sunsets of the entire year, however. Often, spring and its unique set of cloud and humidity conditions can create the most colorful and interesting sunsets of the whole year.

December 21 is also the shortest day of the year, meaning these dark winter days can stop getting worse. It's only uphill from here: daylight starts increasing by a minute or two each day after that.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these are generally the coldest days of the year as well, especially for the west coast of the U.S. and anything above the equator. These often last through January, even though daylight starts picking up in late December.

There's some unique science behind this as well.

NOAA said that even though there's more daylight, the Earth's surface is still losing more heat than what it's bringing in from above for awhile, and the presence of oceans makes the surface even harder to warm back up. Yet in the Pacific Northwest the Pacific Ocean is generally a moderating factor, making the coasts of Washington and Oregon less susceptible to freezes and snow than the valley towns on the other side of the Coast Range or Willapa Hills.

“Not until the Northern Hemisphere sees a net gain in incoming solar energy do temperatures begin their slow climb upwards,” NOAA said.

The image above is from NOAA, showing the daylight terminator of Earth on one winter solstice. You can see the tilt of the Earth causing the diagonal of the daylight terminator (the spot between day and night).

“On the day of the winter solstice, the sun will be directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at noon and at the same time, the region above the Arctic Circle will be in total darkness for 24 hours,” Todd said. “On the winter solstice the Sun from our Earth perspective appears to stand still. 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. The day of the winter solstice was met with great anticipation, a bit of anxiety and a lot of celebration. Right after the solstice the Sun invariably started rising and setting a little bit farther north each day. Our ancestors interpreted the sun's rising to mean that the world would not be plunged into eternal winter and that spring would once again eventually come.”

Looking for a slightly longer day?

The Oregon and Washington coast will see sunset about four to ten minutes later than the I-5 corridor towns (depending where) because it's farther west enough to make a difference. However, sunrise will also be slightly later.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees nearly 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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