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The Quest To Find The First Sunrise Of 2011

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Here’s a New Year’s puzzle: Where in the United States would you have to travel to see the country’s first sunrise of 2011?

According to James Hilton, from the United States Naval Observatory, the answer is -- complicated.

“You basically have a question in some ways that you’re mixing science with sociology,” he says.

About a decade ago, at the turn of the millennium, people were asking Hilton about this very question, so he set out to try to answer it.

It’s more complicated than just “the sun rises in the east; go there.” Geography and altitude matter. So does the temperature and the air pressure.

“The sun’s light passes through the air, which acts like a lens and bends the light. The amount of bending depends on the weather conditions at the time,” Hilton says.

According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, two places are candidates for the honor: Siasconset, Mass., and Lubec, Maine. Both are supposed to see the sun rise at around the same time.

Hilton says if the weather cooperates, one location will give you a better shot of seeing the sun rise first.

“I would send you to Maine,” he says.

In Massachusetts, astronomer Vladimir Strelnitski begs to differ. He’s the director of the Maria Mitchell observatory, and President Obama gave him a science award earlier this year.

“My calculations show that we would be at least one minute earlier,” he says.

Back on New Year’s Day 2000, Strelnitski clocked the exact moment the sun peeked over the horizon; he says it was a full minute before anyone in Maine saw it.

But really, Strelnitski admits, this all becomes moot once you take into account the territories.

“Somewhere in the Virgin Islands it will be earlier,” he says.

On St. Croix in the United States Virgin Islands, there’s a place called Point Udall. It bills itself as the easternmost point of the United States. And it’s where you’ll find the “Millennium Monument,” a sculpture commemorating the year 2000.

It’s the idea of a man named Aloy Nielsen. He says people gather there to watch the sun rise every New Year’s Day.

“When the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s so big and so bright. So it’s very exciting to see it come up in this location before anyone else can see it,” he says.

But if you want to get super technical about it, these guys still aren’t first.

If you keep going east, around the world, over the Atlantic Ocean, through Europe and Asia, into the Pacific, you’ll eventually hit Guam.

Guam is just over the international date line, putting it 15 hours ahead of the east coast. Guam’s motto is: “Where America’s Day Begins.”

Go a little bit further, and you’ll find another piece of land, called Wake Island. It’s managed by the U.S. Air Force, and it’s the site of a famous World War II battle.

“The sun will rise there before it rises in Guam ... but it’s not permanently occupied, while Guam does have a native population,” Hilton says.

In any case, it’s a little too late to book your flight now. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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