Why Last Night Wasn't Earth's Longest

It probably happened in 1912, thanks to tidal acceleration
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 22, 2014 6:21 AM CST
Updated Dec 22, 2014 8:25 AM CST
Last Night Was the Longest Since 1912
In this Dec. 21, 2013, photo provided by Make Music, the 2013 Make Music Winter celebration of the winter solstice in New York City is shown.   (AP Photo/Make Music, Clara Schuhmacker)

The winter solstice officially occurred at 6:04pm EST yesterday, marking the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. But all "longest nights" aren't created equal, and the longest night in Earth's history likely happened in 1912. Here's why: The Earth's rotation has been slowing a little bit every year since the planet formed some 4.5 billion years ago, and we have a phenomenon known as tidal acceleration to thank. The moon's gravity pulls on our oceans, tugging the oceans that face it into a "bulge" (LiveScience digs into why there's a bulge on the other side, too). But as the Earth rotates, that tidal bulge is pushed to a position just ahead of the point of our planet that's directly below the moon. That causes the Earth to experience "just a bit of friction from this bulge of water as it rotates, slowing it down slightly," explains Vox.

And as a NASA article explains, as Earth slows, the moon is able to inch away from us. The effects of these things are so tiny it takes atomic clocks to spot them, but they're very gradually making our nights longer—mostly. In the long view, we're slowing, but geological factors (like ice melting at our poles, for instance) can impact the rotational speed, and as this University of California Observatories graph shows, the length of our day has gone infinitesimally up and down over the last century, but the peak—and therefore the longest night in our history—occurred in 1912. As far as the length of last night goes, it depends on where you spent it, notes the Washington Post. Washington, DC, saw about 9.5 hours of daylight yesterday, while Miami got almost 10.5, and Fairbanks, Alaska, saw less than four. (The 2010 winter solstice was remarkable for quite another reason.)

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