The Summer Solstice 2020

The Summer Solstice in the Northern hemisphere happens this evening, Saturday 20th June 2020, at 22:43 Irish Time (21.43 UTC). Among other things, this means that today is the longest day of the year. This is an earlier day in June than you might expect, primarily because 2020 is a leap year.

Days will get shorter from today until the Winter Solstice in December, although this does not mean that sunset will necessarily happen earlier tomorrow than it does today. In fact it is a little later. This is because there is a difference between mean solar time (measured by clocks) and apparent solar time (defined by the position of the Sun in the sky), so that a solar day does not always last exactly 24 hours. A description of apparent and mean time was given by Nevil Maskelyne in the Nautical Almanac for 1767:

Apparent Time is that deduced immediately from the Sun, whether from the Observation of his passing the Meridian, or from his observed Rising or Setting. This Time is different from that shewn by Clocks and Watches well regulated at Land, which is called equated or mean Time.

The discrepancy between mean time and apparent time arises because of the Earth’s axial tilt and the fact that it travels around the Sun in an elliptical orbit in which its orbital speed varies with time of year (being faster at perihelion than at aphelion).

Using a rapid calculational tool (Google), I found a table of the local mean times of sunrise and sunset for Dublin around the 2020 summer solstice. This shows that today is indeed the longest day (with a time between sunrise and sunset of 17 hours and 10 seconds), but sunset on 21st June is actually a bit later than this evening, but sunrise is also bit later so the day is indeed (slightly) shorter.

In fact if you plot the position of the Sun in the sky at a fixed time each day from a fixed location on the Earth you get a thing called an analemma, which is a sort of figure-of-eight curve whose shape depends on the observer’s latitude. Here’s a photographic version taken in Edmonton, with photographs of the Sun’s position taken from the same position at the same time on different days over the course of a year:

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The summer solstice is the uppermost point on this curve and the winter solstice is at the bottom. The north–south component of the analemma is the Sun’s declination, and the east–west component is the so-called equation of time which quantifies the difference between mean solar time and apparent solar time. This curve can be used to calculate the earliest and/or latest sunrise and/or sunset.

One Response to “The Summer Solstice 2020”

  1. If you like these things, today’s solstice coincides with a new moon (9 hours or so apart) and an annular solar eclipse in Africa and Asia (strictly speaking it is the following calendar day but it falls on the same modified julian day).

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