RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On this last day of the year, we have a New Year's puzzle for you. Where, in the United States, would you have to travel to see the country's first sunrise of 2011? NPR's Travis Larchuk went looking for the answer.
TRAVIS LARCHUK: Here's how this started for me. A few months ago I was sitting in a restaurant with a bottle of Nantucket Nectars. They're those juice drinks with the random facts about Nantucket, Massachusetts printed under the caps. Like this one.
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On January 1, 2000, the first sunrise in the United States was at Siasconset on Nantucket. Well, that seemed like a bold claim, so I decided to get in touch with someone from the United States Naval Observatory.
Mr. JAMES HILTON (United States Naval Observatory): You basically have a question, in some ways, that you're mixing science with sociology.
LARCHUK: That's James Hilton. At the turn of the millennium, people were asking him about this very question. Turns out, it's more complicated than just the sun rises in the East, go there. Your geography and altitude matter. And so does the temperature and the air pressure.
Mr. HILTON: The sun's light passes through the air, which acts like a lens and bends the light. The amount of bending depends upon the weather conditions at the time.
LARCHUK: So if we go to the East Coast, two states are candidates for first sunrise - Massachusetts and Maine. So where do you go?
Mr. HILTON: I would send you to Maine.
LARCHUK: Hilton says, if the weather cooperates, you've got a better shot of seeing the sun rise first in Maine. Well, in Massachusetts, astronomer Vladimir Strelnitski begs to differ.
Dr. VLADIMIR STRELNITSKI (Astronomer): My calculations show that we would be at least one minute earlier.
LARCHUK: OK. This guy is not messing around. He's the director of the Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket and President Obama gave him a science award this year. Back on New Year's Day 2000, Strelnitski decided to defend his state's sunrise honor. He clocked the exact moment the sun peeked over the horizon and says it was a full minute before anyone in Maine saw it.
But really, this all becomes moot once you take into account the territories.
Dr. STRELNITSKI: Somewhere in the Virgin Islands it will be earlier.
LARCHUK: So let's go to the United States Virgin Islands.
This is Point Udall in St. Croix. And it's where you'll find The Millennium Monument, a sort of giant sundial. It's the idea of a man named Aloy Nielsen, and he says, every New Year's Day, people gather here to watch the sun rise.
Mr. ALOY NIELSEN: When the sun, you know, comes up over the horizon, I mean, it's just so big and so bright. So it's very exciting to see it come up right at this location before anyone else can see it.
LARCHUK: But if you want to get super technical about it, these guys still aren't first. Because if you keep going east - and I mean way east, around the world - you'll eventually hit Guam. Guam is just over the International Date Line, which puts it 15 hours ahead of the east coast. Guam's motto is even: Where America's Day Begins.
But go a little bit further, and you'll find another piece of land, this one managed by the U.S. Air Force, called Wake Island. Here's James Hilton again, from the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Mr. HILTON: The sun will rise there before it rises in Guam, but it's not permanently occupied, while Guam does have a native population. In any case, it's a little too late to book your flight now.
Travis Larchuk, NPR News.
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