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Get Ready For The Longest Night Of The Year

By Stephen Gossett in News on Dec 20, 2016 7:36PM

Getty Images / Scott Olsen

It only takes a quick glance at the news cycle to feel as if we’re living in extended darkness, but tonight—or more technically, early Wednesday morning—that will be the case a little bit more literally. The winter solstice arrives at 4:44 a.m., bringing with it what is conventionally believed to be the longest night of the year.

At the solstice, the sun reaches its lowest altitude of the year before slowly climbing higher and higher with each day.

“Because of the Earth’s tilt and the way the planet orbits the sun, the sun appears higher or lower in the sky, explains Adler Planetarium Master Educator Michelle Nichols. “This is the point at which the sun is at its lowest point in the sky. It’s essentially when the sun is seen directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn.”

According to Nicholls, the old adage that the winter solstice represents that longest night, followed by the longest day, isn’t 100 percent accurate. Here in Chicago, for instance, the times between sunrise and sunset on several days clustered around the winter solstice clock in at the same duration. But they are extremely short stretches, lasting only roughly between 7:15 a.m. and shortly after 4:20 p.m.

But this is indeed the day that gets the press, and to mark the phenomenon, Nichols will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art terrace between 6 and 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday with telescope in hand, to stargaze as much as the heavens allow. “I’m hoping the sky will be clear enough to see some significant star clusters,” she said. “I’ll take whatever the sky can give us.” (The MCA is free for Illinois residents on Tuesdays.)

The best part, however, might be what comes afterward: the return of more sun.

"I'm really, really, really happy that, after the next few days, daylight will be getting longer," Nichols said. We'll get one extra minute of daylight on the 24th and it'll continue to creep up daily from thereon, Nichols said.

Slow and steady lifts the darkness.