People here live in complete darkness for 2.5 months. Here's how they do it
Updated November 13, 2022 at 7:03 AM ET
On Svalbard, a cluster of islands between Norway and the North Pole, people wear headlamps day and night for two-and-a-half months of the year. That's because it's Polar Night — the period where the sun doesn't rise above the horizon in the Arctic. This weekend, the pitch-black period of Polar Night begins.
Geographically, the archipelago is twice the size of Hawaiian islands, but only about 2,500 people live there. In addition to the headlamps, Svalbard's inhabitants travel in pairs outside their village. They carry flare guns to ward off the polar bears.
Carrying a gun for bear protection is common enough that grocery stores are prepared.
"And remember, no guns in the store, so you give them to one of the people so they can lock them in if you have a gun with you from being outside and, you know, hiking," TikTokker Cecilia Blomdahl said in a recent video.
She's made a name for Svalbard among her 2.3 million followers — nearly one-thousand times more people than those who live on Svalbard. Blomdahl is known for sharing facts like cats are banned here, a tour of the single-gate airport in the world's northernmost town and how she cleans polar bear poop off of her dog.
On Svalbard, people look forward to this time of year: It's like a fifth season. There's about a month bookending the pitch-black period on either side where the sun never rises above the horizon. During this period, called civil twilight, the only light in the sky are sunrises and sunsets — and they last for hours.
"It's a beautiful time. It's the transition between the light autumn and the darker season, the winter," said Arctic explorer and citizen scientist Hilde Fålun Strøm. "We still have some pastels and we have this blue, beautiful color when the pastels are gone. And then it's dark."
Darkness doesn't mean gloom and doom
Fålun Strøm quit her job in tourism and now spends months at a time overwintering, or staying in trapper's cabins in remote Arctic areas collecting climate data. She's seen between 400 and 500 polar bears throughout her expeditions.
Fålun Strøm stays active, has routines and says that she doesn't experience seasonal depression during the months-long darkness. She savors the calm it brings.
"This darkness is complete, so you have to sort of live with that and you have to see the beauty in that. And to me, that's not hard at all," said Fålun Strøm. "I kind of feel even more immersed by nature when I walk out into the darkness."
Researcher Kari Leibowitz was intrigued by how Norwegians, living so far north, had found a way to stay positive. She received a Fulbright scholarship and headed to the University of Tromso.
"When I was putting together this research study, I thought how interesting that they have relatively low rates of seasonal depression, even though Tromso has such a long, dark, extreme winter," said Leibowitz, an American psychologist and researcher.
"I started realizing how much I had brought my own American conception of winter into this research study. I just sort of assumed that the Polar Night would be miserable and would be a time that was really hard for people," Leibowitz said. "But when I talk to people in Norway about it, they really liked The Polar Night."
The student center at her university has a light cafe where students can drink coffee and sit in front of sun lamps. But, Leibowitz says the focus is more on anticipating the polar night and all of the wintertime activities that it brings, rather than preparing for the lack of light.
If anything, the midnight sun, where the sun stays above the horizon for 24 hours during summer months, can be harder on the body than pure darkness.
There are plenty of cozy winter activities to enjoy
People usually don't usually end up on Svalbard by accident: They choose to live there, whether for work, the Northern lights or the skiing, snowmobiling and dog sledding.
The cozy indoor activities are also a draw. Norwegian has a word for it: koselig (pronounced KOOSH-lee). It's the Norwegian equivalent of Denmark's hygge, which means cozy.
"The tempo maybe goes down an inch, and you have the option to light your candles inside and maybe read a book, maybe you have a wood burning stove," said Fålun Strøm.
It can include social activities too, according to Leibowitz.
"There's a lot of candles, soft lighting, cozy blankets, drinking tea, gathering around fire and sort of being with your loved ones in this sort of calm, peaceful, cozy way," said Leibowitz. "And so I think people prepare for the Polar Night by really being excited for the Polar Night and by sort of getting into the cozy spirit and sort of the outdoor winter activities."
Leibowitz's research found that the farther North you go, the more that people enjoy winter. Her book, "How to Winter," is coming out in 2024, inspired by the Norwegian view of winter held by people like Fålun Strøm.
"People who had a positive winter mindset were also more likely to have high life satisfaction, experience, more positive emotions, be psychologically flourishing, and sort of pursue the kinds of challenges that lead to personal growth," Leibowitz said.
The bigger threat is climate change
And it's not just extreme darkness that people of Svalbard have to deal with: Svalbard is heating up seven times faster than the rest of the globe, and Svalbardians have seen parts of it melt away entirely, and others thaw out earlier than they used to when Spring comes around.
"I moved to Svalbard back in 1995 and back then, all the fjords were frozen during winter for a much longer time than now," said Fålun Strøm. "So just the period of time when the fjords are frozen is more than a month shorter than when I came."
Fålun Strøm and fellow explorer Sunniva Sorby started an organization, Hearts In The Ice, to conduct research in the Polar regions and share how climate change has impacted it.
"I think the fact that if you look at the darkness as a limiting thing, well, then you're going to get limited by it," said Fålun Strøm. "But if you see it as an opportunity to experience something else, to me, it's easier to find the beauty in the darkness."
The radio version of this piece was produced by Claire Murashima and edited by Jacob Conrad.
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