Winter solstice, the 'shortest' day of the year, arrives Wednesday

The winter solstice arrives at 5:44 a.m. Wednesday. Here's what that means.

The winter solstice occurs at 5:44 a.m. Wednesday, marking what most people know as the "shortest" day of the year.

In Baltimore that means just shy of 9 hours, 24 minutes of sunlight.

The solstice is actually a single moment, though. It is when the Earth’s axis — and the northern hemisphere — are tilted furthest away from the sun. The Earth spins on an axis tilted by about 23.4 degrees.

At this time of year, it's the Southern Hemisphere that is getting the most direct sunlight, while the Arctic Circle is stuck in the dark.

While the solstice means the sun spends a minimal amount of time above the horizon, it doesn't coincide perfectly with the latest sunrises or earliest sunsets. That's because of differences between the shifting solar clock, as measured by a sundial, and our more rigid measurements of time.

The earliest sunsets have already passed, arriving at 4:43 p.m. from Dec. 2-11.

The latest sunrises are still ahead, though, reaching 7:26 a.m. by Dec. 28 and continuing to arrive that late through Jan. 11.

The solstice marks the beginning of astronomical winter (meteorological winter began Dec. 1). Because of a lagging effect in the sun's warming of the planet, the coldest weather of the year is nevertheless still ahead of us.

The good news is the days start getting "longer" starting Thursday, though the change is slow because at this time of year we gain only a few seconds of sunlight each day.

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