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Northland Nature: Natural light in a dark month

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.

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A late sunrise over a swamp on a winter morning. Note the long shadows. Contributed / Larry Weber
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Starting Dec. 7 and continuing for the next eight days, through Dec. 14, we had the earliest sunsets of the entire year, at 4:20 p.m. Beginning Dec. 15, the sunsets are later. (Some say that this is the first tiny step toward spring.)

In the mornings, sunrises continue to be later and from Dec. 29 until Jan. 4, the sun’s rising will be the latest of the year. In between these times, we experience the winter solstice Dec. 21.

Besides being the first day of astronomical winter, it is also the day of least amount of daylight for the year, with sunrise at 7:51 a.m. and sunset at 4:23 p.m. (The Weather Service calls this meteorological winter, starting with the first of December. Some phrenologists acknowledge rivers freezing as the start of winter.)

With these early sunsets and late sunrises with short periods of daylight, this time has been called “the dark week,” in a dark month. I find it a bit ironic that it is a good time to see various natural light.

The full moon this month happened about the time of the solstice. Long, dark nights are lit by the moon’s reflected light. But this reflection goes beyond the usual.

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With a snow cover, light from the moon is reflected again off the snow. Like water and ice, snow has a high albedo, making nights bright. Despite the cold, such nights are conducive to winter walks. But there are more lights of note.

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Three planets brighten the sunset time by glowing in the southwest sky fairly soon after sunset: Venus, Saturn and Jupiter. During the phase of the waxing crescent moon Dec. 6, Venus and the moon formed an impressive conjunction shortly after sunset. Each year, shortly before the middle of the month, we have the Geminid meteor shower, a time when we can see more meteors per hour than normal.
And more light was present this year as Comet Leonard appeared in the early morning of Dec. 12 in the east and returned on the evening of Dec. 18. I find that even though we need optics to see it well, the “nearness” to Venus helped us to see this comet better.

Even without all these glowing objects, a clear night sky at this time gives us superb stargazing, allowing us to appreciate the darkness that is often not appreciated. Aurora may appear at times as well, giving more colors to the night. And this year on Dec. 15, we had an unusual display of December lightning.

I note that the sunrises and sunsets in winter are also a lighted show. With the angle of the winter sun being low, the light of the sun’s rising and setting tends to linger and remain longer in view. With some searching, we may be able to see nearly the entire spectrum. Such light shows are present in both the rising and setting; I find they are more spectacular in the setting. The sun’s low angle allows for this spectacle and also the light tends to scatter both to the south and north, making for a “wrap-around” sunset.

Though not one of light, we have another astronomical event at this time. On Jan. 4, Earth is at perihelion. During the annual trip around the sun, this is the time when we are closest to the sun. It is a good time to start a new year; it just happens to nearly coincide with Jan. 1. It may be dark, but we get plenty of natural lights in winter.

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Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books.
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Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at krohman@duluthnews.com.