Time-keeping quirk means sun rises earlier in Maine than Seattle in June

The sun gets up awfully early this time of year around Western Washington with daylight streaming into our windows even before 5 a.m. -- a benefit (or curse?) of our relatively far north latitude.

But there are some spots in Maine that see dawn break as much as a half-hour earlier, despite being a little farther south.  In Caribou, which is on the eastern side of the state near the border with Canada's New Brunswick, the first rays of daylight started brightening the skies just after 3 a.m. Wednesday morning!

Indeed, Nautical Twilight, which is defined as when the sun is just 6-12 degrees below the horizon and is just when the first rays of dawn appear in the sky, starts at 3:10 a.m. in Caribou.  But here in Seattle, which sits about 1 degree farther north latitude than Caribou and thus should have a longer day, the sun waits a full half hour before making its first daylight visible -- Nautical Twilight isn't until 3:41 a.m. Official sunrise is 34 minutes earlier in Caribou than Seattle too (4:40 a.m. vs. 5:14 a.m.)

How is that possible? Blame the way we set up time zones and how it leaves some towns misaligned with the sun.

We've broken up the planet into (mostly) hourly time zones. There are 24 hours and 360 degrees of longitude around our spherical planet so each time zone should be at 15-degree longitude intervals as you circle the globe.

To have our clocks best match the solar positions, you'd want to be as close to those 15-degree markers as possible. In the Eastern Time Zone, which is the 5th time zone west of the Prime Meridian (0 degrees longitude), those cities that are right along 75 degree West longitude are best aligned to have the sun be at "solar noon" -- as in its highest point of the day around the same time the clock says noon. As you move away from that longitude but keep the same time, you'll start becoming offset from the sun. 

Cairbou is at 68 degrees West and is just a few miles from Canadian towns in the Atlantic Time Zone that would be an hour ahead. So those living just a short drive away to the east don't see the sun crack the horizon until around 4:10 a.m. If we really wanted Caribou to be corrected, they should be in a time zone that is about 30 minutes ahead of Eastern Daylight Time (Hey, it works for Newfoundland!) Then daylight would come at 3:40 a.m. and is fairly close to Seattle, as logic dictates it should.

Meanwhile, Seattle is at 122 degrees West -- just about in the perfect spot with regard to our position in the Pacific Time Zone, which is centered on 120 degrees West. This is a fancy way of saying our clocks are just about on perfect time with respect to solar position (though not quite spot on). Solar Noon drifts through the year and right now we are offset 1 hour and 7 minutes -- as in the sun reaches the highest point of the sky at 1:07 p.m.  One hour of that offset is our own fault by going onto Daylight Saving Time; the other 7 minutes are due to Earth's elliptical orbit and not being exactly centered on 120 West. December 5th and 6th are the ONLY days of the year the sun sits at exactly "high noon" at when the clocks say noon in Seattle. 

So, are Maine's days longer then?

No. East/west timekeeping quirks aside, being farther north in the Northern Hemisphere approaching the summer solstice means your days are longer than those to your south. Seattle makes up the difference in the late evening.  Sunset on June 2 in Caribou is 8:19 p.m. EDT but is 9:00 p.m. in Seattle.  So despite the later start, Seattle does have 7 minutes more of daylight than Caribou Wednesday, and all is right with the planetary sunlit world.

The National Weather Service office in Seattle could turn the Tweet around and show a photo of the last sliver of the day's sunlight at 10:33 p.m. while in Caribou it would have gone dark at 9:50 p.m. 


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