When is the Winter Solstice and What Does it Mean?

While the meteorological winter begins on at the start of December, the astronomical start of seasons is marked by solstices and equinoxes

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With the holidays less than a week away and the Chicago area preparing for a significant winter storm, it's hard to believe that winter has yet to officially start.

Although meteorological seasons are generally recognized as periods of three months beginning at the start of every third month, astronomical seasons are lined up with biannual equinoxes and solstices.

The first day of winter coincides with the winter solstice, which is also the shortest day of the year in terms of hours of sunlight.

According to the National Weather Service, this year's winter solstice will occur at 3:48 p.m. CST on Wednesday, Dec. 21, marking the official start of winter.

The winter solstice marks the point when the North Pole is at its' furthest location away from the sun, creating the atmosphere for shorter hours of sunlight.

While the solstice and shortest day of the year will both occur on Dec. 21, the following day is recognized as the first full day of winter.

On the first full day of winter this year, a potential blizzard is expected to materialize, bringing potential whiteout conditions and bitterly cold temperatures, presenting travel hazards across the Chicago area from Thursday through Saturday.

A winter storm watch is currently in effect for the area for Thursday and Friday, with expectations for an "intense and widespread" winter storm by Thursday evening.

Bitterly cold temperatures will be felt throughout and after the storm's duration, with wind chill readings of -30 possible for early Friday morning.

Snow is expected to begin subsiding by Friday evening, though strong winds on Saturday could still create hazardous travel conditions.

Early predictions so far indicate the Chicago area could see between 5 and 9 inches of snow, with higher totals possible, especially in northwest Indiana. Some locations could also see lower totals.

Though the day of the solstice is always marked, the solstice itself is only the moment that the northern hemisphere is tilted at its furthest point away from the sun, according to The Farmer's Almanac.

As the solstice marks the changing of seasons, the event also holds significance to many cultures. Several ancient structures were built as ways to track the seasons, including Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland.

Additionally, the solstice can also be seen as the time in which the sun's path reaches its most southerly point of the sky, with the opposite effect being witnessed in the southern hemisphere.

According to the Farmer's Almanac, the word solstice originates from the Latin words sol and sistere, translating to "sun" and "to stand still" respectively, loosely translating to "sun stand still."

After the winter solstice concludes, the sun begins to advance northward all the way up until the summer solstice occurs in the northern hemisphere, marking the when the sun is most closely tilted to the hemisphere.

Despite starting near the end of the months they begin in, astronomical seasons and meteorological seasons both last for approximately three months.

Below is a list of the astronomical season changes we can expect to see following the upcoming winter solstice next month:

  • Vernal Equinox (Spring): March 20, 2023, 4:24 p.m.
  • Summer Solstice (Summer): June 21, 2023, 9:58 a.m.
  • Autumnal Equinox (Fall): Sep. 23, 2023, 1:50 a.m.
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