The dark period
Every winter from mid November, the Svalbard archipelago, located halfway between northern Norway and the North Pole, is covered in total darkness.
On the biggest and only inhabited island, Spitsbergen, people don’t see the sun for four months. During this challenging time, residents wait longingly for March, when the sun finally rises above the horizon again.
Living here by choice
The population of Spitsbergen is constantly shifting, with most people moving here just for a few years to work in tourism, in coal mines or as researchers. Due to the isolation, women are not allowed to give birth on the island, and people must leave when they hit retirement age. What’s left is a mostly young, healthy and vibrant society.
There’s a saying that Svalbard has five seasons: spring, summer, autumn and then two winters, the dark and the light winter. The dark winter, or polar night, when the sun doesn’t rise at all, is followed by a period of twilight in February and early March. This second winter is the favourite for many people on the island. The colours of the sky and landscape can change by the hour and it feels like the sun could rise above the horizon at any minute. But it doesn’t. It’s a tease that lasts for weeks.
An island of contrasts
“This island is about contrasts. During the polar night, it’s pitch black without moonlight. You can’t even see 3ft away. Life happens inside. In summer, it’s the opposite. The sun is spinning small circles high up in the sky, 24 hours a day, as if it’s drunk and doesn’t know where to go.” – Ronny Brunvoll, head of Visit Svalbard
Pictured here, locals hole up during the dark winter in Camp Barentz restaurant, which can only be reached by snowmobile.
The hospital stairs
This year, the sun is due to return to the city of Longyearbyen on 8 March. On this date, people will gather at the old hospital stairs (pictured); the sunlight can be seen first on the top step due to a small gap in the surrounding mountains. Hundreds of people join in the tradition each year, wearing sun costumes and face paint, chanting traditional Norwegian songs and rhymes.
Earn your reward
Those who want to see the sun earlier must climb the highest mountains around the end of February. The closest peak to Longyearbyen is Trollsteinen (850m), which takes about two-and-a-half to three hours to hike up – although the unpredictable weather conditions mean a sun sighting is never guaranteed.
Chasing the first sunlight only happens for a week or two every year, but is one of the most special experiences you can have on the island, especially after a long winter without months of sunlight.
An outdoor mind
Svalbard Turn, the local sports organisation, puts post boxes on 10 summits around Longyearbyen as soon as the return of the sun is near. Each one contains a notebook, and the first person who writes their name in all 10 books wins a trip to Ny-Ålesund, a former mining town 120km north of Longyearbyen. A trip like this is a true outdoor experience, allowing residents to explore some extremely remote parts of the island.
Kissed by the sun
“Seeing the sun for the first time in months is emotional. The brightness, the warmth you feel on your face. You start to extremely appreciate basic aspects of nature you never really thought about before.” – Espen André Øverdahl, mountain guide.