Fairbanks, Alaska, America’s northernmost metropolitan area, is just 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle. On Friday’s winter solstice, it will see just three hours, 41 minutes, and 39 seconds of sunlight. That sunlight will barely creep over the horizon line. And the sun will crawl across the horizon — like a sailboat skimming across a pond — throughout this incredibly short winter solstice day.
In 2012, Taro Nakai, a weather researcher, captured the icy beauty of this phenomenon in a time lapse.
At high latitudes, daylight hours vary tremendously season to season. Fairbanks gets about 18 more hours of sunlight during the summer solstice in June than it will today. That’s because the Earth is tilted on its axis. The Northern Hemisphere gets more direct sunlight in the months of March to September; the Southern Hemisphere gets more direct sunlight for the remainder of the year. (Find a full scientific explanation of the winter solstice right here).
Here’s another cool way to visualize the extreme of the winter solstice. In 2013, a resident of Alberta, Canada — several hundred miles south of Fairbanks, but still in a high latitude — took this pinhole camera photograph of the sun’s path throughout the year, and shared it with the astronomy website EarthSky. You can see the dramatic change in the arc of the sun from December to June.
(You can easily make a similar image at your home. All you need is a can, photo paper, some tape, and a pin. Instructions here.)
Though it is the darkest day of the year for us in the Northern Hemisphere, many still find reason to celebrate. For instance, this was the scene at Stonehenge on winter solstice 2016, where pagans, druids, and other revelers gathered to celebrate the sunrise as it lined up directly with some of the stone monuments.
And even if paganism isn’t your thing, there’s at least one thing to celebrate in the Northern Hemisphere. For the next six months, the days will grow longer once again.