As we approach the end of February and begin to transition into March and the pending arrival of Spring that it brings, this time of year tends to mark a bit of a small milestone in my mind. It’s the time of year when there’s still a few remaining shreds of daylight outside when I leave the office in the evening. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about this before on my Blog (after 6 1/2 years and 635 posts, I suspect there isn’t a whole lot left that I haven’t talked about on here at one point or another) but I tend to view this as the point where Winter is finally starting to wane, and it’s just about time to start looking for signs of Spring. Generally, by the middle of Autumn all (or most of) the leaves have fallen off the trees, and at that point most people just tend to spend the next three or four months treating them as basically a blind spot, since there isn’t really anything to see there anyway. In fact, it wasn’t until I was leaving the office today that I happened to notice some of the trees lining Spring street between Western and First still had their Christmas lights on, even though I walk past there on a regular basis. I just hadn’t bothered to take notice of the fact.
As I’m sure you’ve heard from many sources over many years, even though the Winter weather we get around here tends to be relatively mild compared to the Winter weather you find in a lot of places (the Eastern United States in particular seems to be getting more than their fair share of the stuff this year) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t thoroughly miserable out there at times. The fact that Seattle is one of the Northernmost major cities in the Continental United States means that we tend to have a greater variation in the lengths of our days and nights than a lot of places. During the Summer it may not get dark until almost 10pm, but around the Winter Solstice, sunset here can be as early as 4:18pm. (Note: This is based on 2013 sunrise/sunset times, not sure how much it varies from year to year.) To contrast, in Los Angeles (about 1,000 miles South of here, and approximately 200 miles east of Seattle in longitude,) the earliest sunsets in December happen at 4:43pm, nearly a half hour later, and the latest sunsets in June are at 8:08pm, which is over an hour earlier than here. At the Summer Solstice, Los Angeles gets 14 hours, 25 minutes and 34 seconds between Sunrise and Sunset, but Seattle gets 15 hours, 59 minutes and 20 seconds (feel free to round up to an even 16 hours if you’d like,) nearly an hour and a half more sunlight.
On the other hand, at the Winter Solstice Seattle only gets 8 hours, 25 minutes and 24 seconds, while Los Angeles gets 9 hours, 53 minutes and 26 seconds, a difference of roughly an hour and a half (give or take a minute or two.) If you compare this to a location even further South (such as Miami, which is just about as far South as you can get in the continental United States) the difference becomes even more marked, with over two hours more sunlight here at the Summer Solstice, and over two hours more sunlight there at the Winter Solstice. Taking this exercise to its logical conclusion (in this case, almost directly on the Equator in Quito, Ecuador) reveals a difference of roughly 4 hours at each Solstice. Granted, it’s not quite the “Midnight Sun” that they get up in Northern Alaska during the Summer (which they make up for with Polar Night, a period of one or more days with no sun at all during the Winter above the Arctic Circle) but the effect is more significant than most people might imagine. People don’t tend to think of Seattle as really being a Northern city, but at a latitude of 47°37′N, it’s quite a bit farther north than quite a few major Canadian cities, including Toronto (43°42′N), Ottawa (45°25′N), Montreal(45°30′N) and Quebec City (46°49′N.) In fact, the closest Canadian city in terms of latitude is St. John’s, Newfoundland at 47°34′N, and people tend to think of Newfoundland as being way up in the North, but it’s still south of Seattle in latitude. Obviously there are also a number of Canadian cities well to the north of Seattle, including Vancouver (obviously), Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, but it turns out that Seattle is farther north than the areas that at least a third of the population of Canada lives in (too lazy to try to sort out population stuff right now, it’s already 1am while I’m typing this. and I should probably have been in bed an hour ago.)
Nonetheless, regardless of how late it stays light outside during the Summer, we definitely seem to end up paying for it with our early darkness during the Winter. And when it gets dark as early as it does in December and January, you tend not to notice things. Sure, the weather is still, on average, fairly miserable on most days, but at least when the light starts to stay longer the “gloom” portion of the whole doom-and-gloom thing that seems so popular around this time of year tends to be reduced to some extent. Yes, it’s still 43 degrees outside and you’re still trudging up the hill to the bus stop in the type of rain that isn’t enough to really do much more than annoy you, but at least you tend to have some sense that it can’t last forever. I’m sure if I went looking for the signs of the pending Spring they wouldn’t be too hard to find (and probably wouldn’t have been too hard to find three weeks ago if I cared to look then) but regardless of how vigilant one might or might not be, Spring has a tendency to sneak up on us a bit. One day, we happen to look up and suddenly notice that the trees are in full blossom, and wonder when it happened. Then again, a dormant tree in Winter just tends to kind of blend into the background without much reason to notice it, until suddenly one day it wakes up and makes itself highly visible. But in the meantime, we’re not quite out of the proverbial woods yet. At least we can see that we might be soon enough, which sometimes is just barely enough to keep us going for a while.