Living on the remote Arctic islands of Svalbard has its challenges, not least in the permanent darkness of winter. Here’s how one local copes.
Hi there! My name is Cherie, and I'm a local living in Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost town. I'm writing this blog post to give you a glimpse of what life is like in Svalbard during the polar night.
Polar night is the period when the sun doesn't rise above the horizon. In Longyearbyen, the polar night lasts from late October to early February. During this time, the sun doesn't rise at all, and the town is plunged into darkness.
So, what's it like to live in darkness for months on end? For some people, it can be overwhelming and challenging.
The mountains once visible during the summer season are now wrapped in darkness. The surroundings have transformed into a monochromatic tapestry of black and white hues. It feels like your world has gotten smaller.
But for some, it can also be a time of peace and tranquility. They find that they can relax and reflect on their lives and have a peaceful, meditative time. The absence of light can be a welcome relief from the hectic summer.
Coping with the darkness
It used to be a challenging experience for me to transition from summer to winter. At times, the darkness felt isolating and depressing, and I had difficulty adjusting to the lack of sunlight.
But since the last polar night, I finally grasped that it's a temporary phenomenon that will eventually end. Aside from that, I filled my living space with some plants, candles, and soft, warm lights for the evenings.
I use a light therapy lamp during the daytime to help regulate my circadian rhythm. This is very helpful in regulating sleep at night. I also make sure to take my Vitamin D supplements and fuel myself properly- eating nutrient-rich foods.
I also invested in some quality cold-weather gear – thick parkas, boots with good grip, and woolen hats and gloves, so I can still enjoy the beauty of the Arctic by going out for a walk or a hike for a spectacular view of the city.
When the weather isn't ideal for outdoor activities, I like to relax with a warm mug of hot cocoa and enjoy a good book or catch up on a series I've been meaning to watch.
Activities during the polar night
For those living in Longyearbyen, life continues despite all the darkness. There are surprisingly many activities one can do here during the polar night.
There are several winter festivals held in Longyearbyen throughout the season, including the Taste Svalbard culinary festival in early October, Dark Season Blues in late October to mark the start of the dark season, and the Polarjazz festival towards the end of the polar night season.
Dog sledding is one of the popular activities in Svalbard during the winter season. This is a fun and exciting way to experience the beauty of the Arctic winter. Several companies offer dog sledding tours in Longyearbyen.
Most tours last a few hours and take you through the snow-covered landscape of the surrounding area. You will have the opportunity to meet the dogs and learn how they are trained.
You may even see some Northern Lights while you are out on your tour. The combination of the brilliant lights of the aurora borealis and the howling of the huskies is an unforgettable experience.
Hiking on a polar night is a unique and challenging experience. The darkness of the polar night can make it difficult to navigate, and the cold temperatures can be demanding.
However, the rewards of hiking in the polar night can be significant. You will have the opportunity to see the landscape in a new way and experience the beauty of the Arctic in a new light.
A few popular hiking trails in Longyearbyen are suitable for hiking during polar night. These include the Trollsteinen Trail and the Plateau Mountain Trail. These trails offer stunning views of the surrounding area and are relatively easy to hike.
Take a short snowmobile trip outside of town to escape the artificial lights. Feel the night sky's proximity and immerse yourself in its beauty.
Every year on the first Sunday of Advent, locals gather in the town’s main square for the traditional Christmas tree lighting to kick off the Christmas season in Longyearbyen.
The tree is decorated with lights and ornaments; a choir or band sometimes performs. After the tree is lit, there is often a parade or other festive events like Christmas markets and concerts.
How locals adapt in the Svalbard winter
Summer is the busiest season in Longyearbyen. This is when the sun shines 24 hours a day, and the town is filled with tourists and workers. Businesses are open late, and there are plenty of activities to keep people busy.
The town's population swells from around 2,000 to over 3,000 during summer as tourists flock to Longyearbyen to experience the Arctic wilderness. This influx of people boosts the local economy as businesses cater to visitors' needs.
As the days get shorter and the nights get longer, Longyearbyen settles into a slower pace of life. Seasonal workers start to leave the island, and businesses focus more on essential services.
Shops in Longyearbyen during the polar night can be slightly different than in other seasons. Some shops may be closed, but most stay open on reduced service hours. They have adapted to polar night's challenges by offering different services and products and have become more creative in their marketing strategies.
Sure, business is slow, and work hours are shorter, which means less money, but locals learned how to adjust to accommodate these changes. The choices for those living in Svalbard may be limited, but it is always enough.
During this time, residents take the opportunity to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet of the Arctic winter. Whether going for walks in the snow, stargazing, or simply curling up with a good book, this time allows for a connection with nature.
It's an excellent chance to go on a Northern Lights hunt, appreciate the shimmering lights in the sky, reflect on the past year, and plan for the future. Finding balance and making the most out of life becomes a priority.
The experience of living through the polar night can never be understood until you’re a resident. There's something extraordinary about being able to experience this unique season in an untouched part of the world and gain a deeper appreciation for the unique beauty it holds.
For a place considered barren and uninhabitable, shaped by its rough climate and harsh environment, it is one of the best places to genuinely connect with yourself and the world around you. The polar night is a way of life, full of distinctions that don't exist elsewhere.
Every day provides an opportunity to appreciate small moments with family and friends and reflect on the things that matter. It's a magical time full of adventure, exploration, beauty, and connection.
The secret of Arctic life
A friend of mine shared with me some excerpts from the book “A Woman in the Polar Night” by Christiane Ritter, which I think offers a good insight into how it feels to live in the Arctic during the dark season. She said:
“The Arctic does not yield its secret for the price of a ship’s ticket. You must live through the long night, the storms, and the destruction of human pride. You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness. In the return of light, in the magic of the ice, in the life rhythm of the animals observed in the wilderness, in the natural laws of all being, revealed here in their completeness, lies the secret of the Arctic and the overpowering beauty of its lands.”