One of the unusual features of life in the Arctic is the seasonal variation of sunlight. In November the days become shorter and shorter until the sunlight disappears and the Polar Night begins.
Blue Hour and Aurora
The “Polar Night” is a period of up to three months during which the sun never rises above the horizon for those living above the Arctic Circle. The farther North one lives, the longer the Polar Night lasts. But even if the sun never rises, this does not mean that it is completely dark. Even during the Polar Night there is a period of beautiful twilight which can last several hours in the middle of the day. This is often called the “Blue Hour” because of the unique blue tint. Photographers love this period of the day since it helps them capture remarkable landscape photos.
Another popular pastime during the Polar Night is hunting the aurora borealis, or the Northern Lights. The Northern Lights appear when charged particles from the sun hit the earth’s atmosphere and emit light. The aurora can appear in different colors such as green, purple or even red depending on conditions in the atmosphere. Both the solar activity level and cloud cover decide if you will be lucky enough to see the Northern Lights any particular evening.
Polar Night Fatigue
During the Polar Night Arctic residents like to cozy up inside with friends and family, candles, good food and warm drinks. In northern communities in Russia, people also enjoy story-telling as a winter activity. The Arkhangelsk region in particular is known for keeping old traditional songs and tales alive that have faded from memory in other parts of the country.
Even if it is relaxing to spend more time inside with family and friends, the absence of the sun can also make many people feel more tired than they would during the other seasons. Arctic residents have come up with many ways to tackle this challenge, though; some use bright lights in homes and offices, while others might take extra vitamins. Others swear by spending time outside in the fresh air to beat the winter blues. Winter sports such as skiing and ice skating are popular. In northern Russia, children have shorter school days in December and January and they are encouraged to participate in sports competitions to spend more time outside. The most strong-willed of all choose to go winter bathing. True enthusiasts swim daily in the sea or in frozen lakes, claiming that it boosts blood circulation and strengthens the immune system.
Return of the Sun
It seems understandable that when the sun finally returns it is cause for celebration. Different traditions for celebrating the return of the sun occur around the circumpolar Arctic.
In Tromsø, Norway, sweet buns are eaten to celebrate both when the sun leaves and when it returns. On January 21 schoolchildren make signs with suns on them and paint their faces before they walk to the southern tip of the island to catch sight of the sun rising above the mountain peaks.
In Greenland children are also heavily involved in the sun celebrations. They make drawings and prepare songs which the residents sing when they gather to welcome the first sunrise.
Among the Inuit people of northern Canada there is a special sun ceremony practiced in some communities. The ceremony consists of lighting traditional soapstone lamps fuelled with seal blubber inside a ceremonial space such as a community building for one night. The next day children who have spotted the sun for the first time blow out the lamps before they are ceremoniously relit using only one wick.
Winter is certainly difficult in the Arctic, but the extreme seasonal variations are part of what makes life in this fascinating place unique.