The Angry Corrie 41: Apr-May 1999

TAC 41 Index

Here Comes the Sun

Grant Hutchison

It was Phil Harmston who started me off this time. He wondered (TAC40, p18) about the effect of high ground on the first sunrise of the year 2000: would the sun appear at some easterly coast first, or might it become visible earlier from hills farther inland? For instance, he asked, would the next millennium dawn at lowish Wallis Island in the Pacific, or at the rather higher Big Diomede in the Bering Strait? Would Scotland see its first sunrise at Peterhead, or Mormond Hill?

Well, there's an immediate problem with Phil's candidates - the Sun is a long way south on 1st January, so that southerly areas have a distinct advantage for an early sunrise. For global first sunrise we're looking for somewhere in the South Pacific, as far east as possible but still on the western side of the International Date Line.

A lot of people have done a lot of sums about this, and there's no doubt that the first inhabited place to see the Sun in the year 2000 will be Pitt Island (4417S 17610W), in the Chatham Islands south-east of New Zealand. From the island's highest point, 231m Mount Hapeka, you'll see the sun come up at 04:45 local time. That's 16:00 GMT - the Chatham Islanders keep their clocks an eccentric 12 hour 45 minutes ahead of Greenwich, and their New Year sunrise happens when the Greenwich time-zone is still watching the sun set on December 31st. The Chathams have only one hotel and a population of 775, so they'll be under a little strain as hosts for the Party of the Millennium. Norris McWhirter's Millennium Adventure Company has supposedly bought the "rights" to film the sunrise from the summit of Hapeka, but there's liable to be something of a tussle with other film crews - the Chief Executive of Millennium Adventure was reported to be making plans to erect a three-metre wall around the summit to keep the others out. Presumably with a hole in it so that they can see out themselves.

When we consider uninhabited areas, there's something of a range of options, many lighting up earlier than McWhirter's booked patch. If you want the absolutely earliest feasible sunrise, and you're not fussed about having your feet on dry land, charter a ship to take you to 6603S 18000E. There, you'll see the Sun just barely dip below the southern horizon before rising again at 00:03 local time, which is 12:03 GMT. (Why is it 00:03 and not 00:00 precisely? For goodness sake just read the Notes and stop interrupting my flow.)

If you want dry land and are prepared to gamble, try Young Island in the Antarctic Balleny group. At the northern end of this island (6613S 16217E) about 90% of the Sun will disappear below the horizon at 13:23 GMT (00:23 local) - it might even set, if atmospheric refraction is unusually low. But that requires a low barometric pressure and high temperature, so it'll probably be cloudy and raining and you'll miss the whole thing anyway. Probably not a good bet. Dry land combined with certainty (apart from the weather) comes on the Wilkes Coast, which is one of the few areas in Antarctica that extend far enough north to see a sunset on New Year's Eve. The earliest Antarctic sunrise of the year 2000 is likely to occur at 6603S 13553E, around 15:08 GMT (00:08 local). If you're having trouble finding a skeely enough skipper to take you into the Southern Ocean, your next earliest option comes in eastern Kiribati. And eastern Kiribati is as far east as you get - it's so far east it would normally be called west. Here's the Kiribati story: Firstly, it's pronounced "Kiribas" - apparently the missionary who first set down the language had a faulty "s" on his typewriter, so he used "ti" instead, by analogy with the central sibilant of "nation". "Kiribas" is the local pronounciation of "Gilberts" (try it a few times; it works) - and Kiribati used to be the northern half of the dear old Gilbert and Ellice Islands. They stumbled out of the British Empire in 1979 to discover that they'd been left with the International Date Line passing right through the middle of their country. When folk in the Gilbert Islands (12 hours ahead of Greenwich) were going to work on Monday, their pals in the Line Islands (10 hours behind Greenwich) were still spending Sunday morning on the golf course - assuming the Line Islands have a golf course, that is. So in 1994, President Tito (no, really; his name is Teburoro Tito) decided to move everyone to the same day of the week. Since eastern Kiribati has only 5% of the national population, they were the ones who ended up with the calendrical surprise - they moved directly from December 31st 1994 to January 2nd 1995. (And haven't we all had a Hogmanay like that?) So now Line Islanders keep a cheerful but counter-intuitive 14 hours ahead of Greenwich, obliging the International Date Line to take a huge pan- handle diversion a couple of thousand kilometres eastwards.

The most south-easterly of the Line Islands is an uninhabited speck of coral whose only claim to fame up to now is that Magellan landed there in 1521, during his famous circumnavigation. It's been variously christened Hirst, Clark, Carolina, Independence, Thornton and Caroline, but now it's called Millennium Island (958S 15013W). Its astonishingly easterly time-zone means that it'll meet the New Year dawn at 15:43 GMT (05:43 local). Of the other southerly Line Islands, Flint then sees the sun at 15:47 GMT, and Vostok lights up at 15:52.

Several sniffy articles have been devoted to Kiribati's Date Line shift, more or less implying it was done for some financial, tourist-related gain - as if having half your country in a different part of the calendar wasn't reason enough. The Royal Geographical Society published a piece in 1997 saying that the change lacked "credibility in the international navigation community." One of the authors was Norris McWhirter - who owns, you will recall, the rights to a certain hilltop in the Chathams. Hmm. But it's not clear why McWhirter should be so exercised about this - the first inhabited island in Kiribati doesn't get the sun until 16:33 GMT, well after the Chathams. And 366m Mount Galloway, on uninhabited Antipodes Island (4942S 17847E), sees the light at 15:55 GMT (03:55 local), five minutes before the Chathams - and Antipodes is very firmly on the kosher side of the Dateline. So Kiribati makes no difference to what McWhirter's got - the first inhabited spot, but by no means the first spot on the planet.

After McWhirter's chosen location, the also-rans jostle for position. Notably, the town of Gisborne in New Zealand, with sunrise at 16:46 GMT (04:46 local), seems to be running as the first- sunrise-in-the-vicinity-of-a-decent-bar candidate.

What about the UK?

Well, sunrise comes ashore at St Margaret's Bay in Kent at 07:59 GMT on 1st January 2000. But the swathe of high ground running between Folkstone and Dover lights up three minutes earlier, with only seconds separating sunrises at a variety of points. My best bet is the 173m trig point at Capel-le-Ferne (TR243387), with sunrise predicted to roll in at 07:55.

The sun comes across the Severn into Wales at 08:17. High ground farther inland will certainly get an earlier sunrise, but the situation is complicated by the absence of a sea horizon. Of the hills dotted between the mining valleys, 472m Mynydd Twn-Glas (ST259978) has a predicted sunrise at 08:12, and what looks like a clear view to the south-east. It's edged out, however, by 811m Waun Fach (SO215300), where the sun comes up at 08:11. Both of these times depend critically on the nature of the sunrise horizon, though - so I'd recommend a reconnoitring trip with a compass to check out the lie of the land along grid bearing 127.

Next comes Scotland, but I thought I'd save it for last. Instead, we'll divert briefly to Ireland, where the sun comes ashore at 08:35, at Carnsore Point. First glimpse of the sunrise is from 793m Mount Leinster (S826525) which catches the rays at 08:29. Residents of Northern Ireland get their first sea-level sunrise at St John's Point, at 08:43, but 850m Slieve Donard (J358276) is ideally placed to catch the light much earlier - at 08:33, in fact.

Right. Back to Scotland, then. The line of the millennial sunrise sweeps up from England almost exactly parallel to the Windy Gyle - Cheviot ridge. I rather fancied 619m Windy Gyle (NT855152) for the first sunrise of 2000 - it sees the sun at 08:27, with a fortuitously-placed bit of sea-level horizon on just the right bearing. But Jonathan de Ferranti has drawn my attention to 743m Cairn Hill West Top (NT896193) on the shoulder of The Cheviot - it sits right on the Scottish border and gets the sun at 08:26.

So that's the place to be. If you arrive around 08:24, you'll see the peaks of Cumbria already lit up, away to the south-west. Face towards grid bearing 130, position your feet just on the Scottish side of the border, and lean forward until your nose is directly above your toes (a plumb line may come in handy at this point). Now wait - and you're guaranteed the first Scottish sunrise of the year 2000.

Assuming it's not cloudy, of course.


Why is the earliest possible sunrise at 12:03 GMT? Were the Earth's orbit perfectly circular, then the Sun's position in the sky would always match the clock time - at 180E, the Sun would always reach its lowest point below the horizon at precisely 00:00 local time, corresponding to 12:00 GMT. But the Earth moves around the Sun in an ellipse - a bit nearer and faster in January, farther out and slower in July. Clocks keep average solar time, and the real position of the Sun drifts back and forth relative to that, in a predictable way. At the start of the year, it turns out that the Sun and the clock disagree by three minutes, so the middle of the night comes at 00:03 local time. To get the earliest possible sunrise, you move southwards along the Date Line until the Sun just barely dips below the horizon at 00:03 - sunset and sunrise occur simultaneously. On 1st January 2000, that happens at latitude 6603S.

I wrote my own sunrise software: Peter Duffett-Smith's Practical Astronomy With Your Calculator told me what to do. But I used John Davies' excellent Psion SolarMap to do a lot of ranging calculations before that. Have a look at his web site at

16:00 GMT 31/12/99 - The Chatham Islands greet the first sunrise of the year 2000 while most of the western Pacific is in darkness. East of the Date Line, in the eastern Pacific and North America, it's still daylight on 31st December. In Europe, darkness has fallen on New Year's Eve, but there are still several hours to go before the year 2000 dawns.

08:26 GMT 1/1/00 - The Cheviot already lit up while the sun creeps across Yorkshire and Lancashire.

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