A Speck of Sunlight Is a Town’s Annual Alarm Clock

陽光是小鎮鬧鐘 一年一鬧

Longyearbyen, Norway, which calls itself the world’s northernmost town, is in total darkness from mid-November through January.

Published: March 3, 2008

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway – Early this month, this remote Arctic settlement – which calls itself as the northernmost town in the world – was buzzing with excitement and expectation.

Longyearbyen is about 600 miles from the North Pole.

The 2,000 inhabitants of Longyearbyen were eagerly awaiting a visitor, a guest to warm the air and make the town’s colors come alive; the white of the snow; the deep blue of the water; the red, yellow and green of the wooden homes, banks, restaurants, schools and the post office.

On March 8, the sun rose again in Longyearbyen, on an island 965 kilometers from the North Pole, for the first time since October. While most of the world takes light and shadows for granted, for residents here, after months of perpetual darkness, the return of sunlight is a very big event.

Now, the wheels are turning again. Inger Marie Hegvik, who has worked at the airport for 15 years, said that she sleeps two to three hours more in the dark months, and that her energy has rose dramatically in the days leading up to March 8.

“It is excellent,” she said, shopping for wine at the Coop, a local store. “Everything becomes easier.” To celebrate the sun’s arrival, her office has planned a party at a mountain cabin.

Longyearbyen, originally a coal-mining town named for the American who founded it a century ago, is in total darkness from mid-November through January. During the first part of November and in February, when the sun is well below the horizon, daytime is only indirect light, a brief period of bluish twilight.

But now, each day is 20 minutes longer than the day before, and noticeably brighter. For the few weeks, residents will enjoy the diurnal alternation of light and darkness that is usual elsewhere.

By the end of March, the transformation will be complete: from April through September, there will be perpetual day in this town, now home to the university and a thriving tourist industry, as well as miners.

The arrival of daylight is like a yearly rebirth, transforming lives and routines. While people do not actually hibernate, residents say they tire easily in the dark winter. Graduate students take naps at their desks.

Suddenly, people will be driving their cars and scooters in light rather than darkness. They can see their kids when they run on ahead. They can hike up the glacier.

The return of the sun also means the return of warmth to this frigid land, although that concept is relative. Summer temperatures average only 6 degrees Celsius. The record high is 18.

But for many longtime inhabitants there is a sense of regret this time of year, as well. The perpetual night in Longyearbyen’s winter can be a time of contemplation. “Winter is so nice, you have all these things you want to do,” said Birgit Brekken, who moved here as a nurse 30 years ago and now works in a boutique that is getting its first trickle of tourists. “You write long letters instead of making a phone call. It’s a time when you can slow down and read.”

Now, she said, “the sun is coming back, and you have to get busy again.”

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