Life Monday is Winter solstice in Australia. What is it, and are we creeping back toward earlier sunrises?
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Monday is Winter solstice in Australia. What is it, and are we creeping back toward earlier sunrises?

winter-solstice
If this Monday morning felt dark and miserable, maybe knowing it's the winter solstice might brighten your mood. Photo: ABC
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If you’re sick of winter already, you might be pleased to know Monday was the winter solstice. But despite its name, it’s not actually the beginning of the end for those dark mornings.

Here’s a few quick questions on the phenomenon.

So what exactly is the winter solstice?

The Earth’s axis is tilted – it’s what gives us our seasons, as different parts of the planet are slightly closer to the Sun at different times.

The winter solstice is when we’re tilted the furthest from the Sun (and it’s the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, because they’re the closest).

winter-solstice
Orange saw an early snowfall two weeks ago, creating this winter wonderland. ABC News: Mollie Gorman

It’s the day with the least daylight in the year (and the longest night).

What does it mean for sunrise and sunset times?

So you’re setting the alarm for 6am – and you want to know if today’s the day we inch slowly back to daylight around that time.

Sadly, there’s still a few days left of later sunrise times. They’ll get slightly later until the end of the month (by about a minute – sunrise is at 7am now in Sydney, it’ll be 7.01am on July 2), then we start heading back towards earlier sunrises.

Why does this happen? Geoscience Australia explains that it’s down to two reasons: Firstly, the Earth orbits the Sun on an ellipse (not a circle), and secondly, we’re slightly off-centre on the axis.

And our clocks don’t exactly match up with a solar day. If you look at the Sun at noon on your watch every day, it won’t be in the same spot in the sky, so we’re out by a few minutes.

Also, solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium (and sol means sun while sistere means to stand or stop) – because around this time, it looks like the Sun doesn’t move much across the sky.

Is it the start of winter – or the middle of winter?

Some people call it mid-winter, others think it’s the start of winter – but either way, it’s here. So which one is it?

This excellent picture explains the difference between astronomical seasons (where winter starts at the solstice) and meteorological seasons (where winter usually starts on June 1).

winter-solstice
The monthly seasons we use in Australia are skewed to be more closely aligned with our coldest three months than the astronomical seasons. ABC Weather: Kate Doyle

But Dr Blair Trewin, senior climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, has told the ABC that seasons everywhere “are a matter of how popular usage has evolved – there isn’t really anything ‘official’ about them”.

So that means you can decide, although Australians tend to consider June 1 the start of winter.

nude-swim-hobart-mona
A record 1537 swimmers fronted a Sandy Bay beach on a Friday morning in 2018 for the annual event which began in 2013. Photo: ABC

Do we have any traditions around it?

There are a few things built on celebrating the winter solstice in Australia – Hobart’s Dark Mofo arts festival hosts a nude swim every year around this day (and it’s super popular. This year’s is on Tuesday morning and it has sold out).

Overseas, hundreds usually turn out for both solstices at Stonehenge in the UK. Famously, it aligns for sunrise and sunset on the solstices.

Sunrise will be at 1.52pm AEST, and thanks to COVID lockdowns many will have to catch it online this year – you can watch the Facebook live here.

What’s the difference between the solstice and equinox?

The clue here is in the name — the equinox is when day and night are roughly equal. So these are twice a year in spring and autumn.

The next one in Australia is on September 23.

OK, so we’ve had the shortest day. When’s the good one (aka the summer solstice)?

That’ll be on December 22 this year – when we’ll get an extra four and a bit hours of daylight than we’ve had today.

So if winter is hard for you, just think about that.

-ABC