Everyone talks about the Northern Lights, but I want to tell you about something I find much more beautiful yet far more understated, and that is, Arctic light.
In the Arctic during winter, the Polar Night can reign for over a month. During this time the sun never passes the horizon. The further north you get the longer Polar Nights can last, so in Svalbard perpetual darkness reigns for nearly four months. It’s difficult to imagine not seeing the sun for so many weeks, and I suspect, even more difficult trying to brush away the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Polar Nights are strange to experience: on one hand, it’s a novelty and something new, but on the other hand, you have to fight against your body’s urge to sleep. In my experience, as soon as the last whisper of light fizzles away by mid-afternoon there is a part of me that feels frustrated at not being able to see and do more. The Norwegian Arctic isn’t a landscape you want to miss, so it’s easy getting into a hapless race with the fast-moving night, and annoyingly, it always wins.
In the Lofoten Islands the period of the Polar Night lasts around 4 weeks, comparatively this is considered short; a little bit further north in Tromso the sun doesn’t rise for 6 weeks; further up in Alta the wait is closer to 8 weeks. However, even though the sun never passes the horizon it’s not all doom and gloom, something very special takes place: between the hours of 11am – 2pm (approximately) there’s something called the ‘Arctic light’ where the sun, although below the horizon, gives enough light to transform the sky into one incredibly long sunset. The term can also be used in a broader way simply to describe the light in the Arctic.
Ray Lucas, an astronomer, adds more information:
In the Northern Hemisphere winter season, the diffuse glow of the sunlight from the sun below the horizon when viewed from north of the Arctic Circle will be centered on and extending up from the south, whereas the similar phenomenon with the summer Midnight Sun seen from just south of the Arctic Circle will show the extended glow of the briefly-setting sun centered in the north instead of the south (and the same works in the reverse directions in the southern polar region). It is all due to geometry and astronomical reasons. The tilt of the Earth on its axis means that, in its annual trip around the sun, Earth’s North Pole is pointed towards the sun in the Northern Hemisphere summer, and pointed away from the sun in the Northern Hemisphere winter, when the Earth is on the opposite side of the sun from where it was 6 months earlier. Ironically, the Earth is closer to the sun in Northern Hemisphere winter and farther from it in Northern Hemisphere summer since the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is not exactly circular, but rather elliptical. And it is the long Midnight Sun days of constant illumination of the sun rather than the relative distance from the sun that makes the most difference in warmth and growing season, etc. for the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. It works the same way in the Southern Hemisphere and Antarctica, of course, except the seasons are exactly opposite.
However, the daylight doesn’t always look so light or dramatic, there are times when it can remain dark (in Svalbard for example) or with a blue tinge known as ‘kaamos’.
Three hours of light is incredibly short, by any standards, but if you alter your perception of the light and treat it by what it looks like for the greater part – a sunset- then it feels longer. Hues of pink slowly stretch into fuchsia then violet; and red clouds expand into a blaze of orange.
At this time, the Polar Night could easily be mistaken for the Midnight Sun.