On & Off Earth

Randy Holladay is a former Louisa County High School earth science teacher. Reach him at oldrockguy@gmail.com.


Most of the leaves have fallen, the sun angle is low and with recent fronts coming through mostly dry and often overnight, passive solar heating season has fully arrived at my house. My south-facing wall, mostly glass, allows the sun to shine deep into the house, quickly removing any early morning chill. Being retired makes it easier to sleep in, and wait for the house to warm.

As welcome as the free solar heat is, it is on a short cycle. December is the darkest month, our planet tipped as far from the warm glow of the sun as it gets each year. Early December has the earliest sunsets of the year; the 7th being the earliest, at 4:51 p.m. (that’s in Richmond, where all Virginia standards are measured from). It is not until New Year’s Eve that the sun sets after 5 p.m.

The latest sunrise occurs early in January (talk to me in person for that explanation). The Winter Solstice occurs late on Dec. 21 and remains the day with the least sunlight, the longest night, kicking off three months of winter.

Those early sunsets are well-timed to watch the last month of the ongoing evening planet show. Jupiter, Saturn and Venus remain the bright “stars” lined up in the southwest after sunset. Venus, rapidly chasing Earth down in the race around the sun, will be almost too low to see by month’s end. Now a waning, or shrinking, crescent in a small telescope, it will catch Earth in early January, spending much of 2022 as the Morning Star.

Earth easily wins the race with the other two planets, changing our view of Jupiter and Saturn to the pre-dawn sky early next year. Watching the positions of all three planets change this month, with a little imagination, you can visualize our solar system as the 3D place it really is. 

A thin, waxing crescent moon is visible near Venus on the 6th, Saturn on the 7th and either side of Jupiter on the 8th and 9th. The Full, Long Night, Moon is on the 18th. Plan on using the bright waxing moon during the first half of the month to add a little extra outdoor walking time and enjoy the moon shadows.

Properly bundled up, getting out on Earth in December during the short daylight hours reveals landforms hidden much of the year. The twisting ridges and drainages of the Piedmont reappear as views, until recently blocked by leaves, open back up. Human activities have created minor changes, but most of what we see is our old, weathered and eroded planet as it truly is at this point in Earth’s history.

Though the 7th is the earliest sunset, that day really still lives as “a day of infamy.” This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled this country into World War II. Sadly, too many other days of horror and tragedy have been etched in our collective memories since then. 

As 2021 winds down, with life still far from pre-pandemic norms, let’s remember during this holiday season  when we speak of peace and joy, sharing and hope, that we mean it. Threats and violence will not solve the issues we all face. Only through civil discussion and the shared reality that we are all on the same, sustaining, but rapidly changing planet, will humanity survive and thrive. Stay safe out there, and happy holidays.

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