How to

10 June 2016

Coping with the Perpetual Darkness of Polar Night


Famously, some places spend weeks or even months bathed inconstant sunlight, otherwise known as ‘midnight sun’, or ‘polar day’. Travel further into the polar circle and the opposite happens, long stretches of nothing but night. This comes in a few different flavours:

  • Polar twilight – The sun is either on or just below the horizon, allowing a small amount of light to spread, but not enough to be able to switch street lights off.
  • Civil polar light – Only the most vague hint of light at around midday, total darkness otherwise.
  • Nautical polar night – Even less evidence of light, some areas get a little more due to refraction, but otherwise nothing.
  • Astronomical polar night – Total, blanket darkness. Even the dimmest stars visible to the naked eye will be on display throughout the day.


The further inward you go, the further into this scale you go. A number of towns and regions in Scandinavia and Russia experience civil polar night, while the northernmost part of Canada gets nautical polar night from late November until the start of January. Astronomical polar night, meanwhile, is reserved for places far deeper into the circle, most famously the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which is plunged into blackness from May 14 to July 28.

Many of the places that experience any of level of this on-going dark more or less completely clear out during these periods, but for those that don’t, there are a lot of psychological adjustments which need to be made in order to carry on daily life without going mental and building a shrine to Apollo in your downstairs broom cupboard.

In Norway, there is a lot of awareness campaigning about seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a kind of winter depression which can be heavily exacerbated by the long night. Locals are taught about it in school, reminded by government TV and internet ads and are generally always sure to prepare themselves for the onset. Regular intake of cod liver oil to maintain vitamin D is also a common practise, as well as more general daily maxims like staying active and exercising year round. There are a number of festivals that take place in towns which experience polar night, as well.

In Barrow, Alaska, they experience 51-67 days without the sun, as well as some of the nastiest weather in the state. The residence base their calendar around the long stretches of light and dark, changing work hours, increasing or decreasing emphasis on social activity and once again try to get outdoors as much as they can.

Murmansk is the largest city in the world to reside within the Arctic Circle, and as such, they also get about 6 weeks of polar night. Some locals take to ‘ice bathing’ during this period, cutting a whole in a frozen lake and well, just getting in. It sounds awful, but it has been shown to incite feelings of euphoria, and a boost to the immune system. How much this actually helps is debatable, it’s mainly just a tradition, but it plays into the resilient attitude which all the hardy residents take.

Even with that taken into account, rates of depression, emotional disorders and suicide are all very high.  In darkness, the brain produces a larger quantity of melatonin, which can play into the development of SAD when it builds up. Alcoholism is also rampant. There have been various weird and wonderful attempts by the Russians to address this, such as the attempted launch of a giant mirror from the Mir space station to reflect sunlight onto the Arctic. For a while, they also introduced stations where people could be bathed in UV light to balance their systems out.


Nothing has really worked in a fundamental way, though. Murmansk citizens, as well as those in the surrounding fishing villages, just have to deal with it, and often tensions can run high. All they can do is embrace and accept it, and the same rule applies to anyone who lives in this kind of environment. Poor living conditions can be improved, economies go up and down, but you can’t change the angle of the sun. 


Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.