The Svalbard archipelago, located halfway between Northern Norway and the North Pole, has one inhabited island. It’s the biggest island and called Spitsbergen with Longyearbyen as its capital. Not many people (can or want to) live at this remote island. Polar bears on the other hand love living here. The archipelago and Barents sea is populated by only 3.000 polar bears. You can imagine not wanting to encounter them, but watching them from a safe distance, would definitely be on many travelers bucket lists (more extraordinary facts about these magnificent creatures). Svalbard is characterized by its contrasting seasons and spectacular nature. A natural phenomenon occurs every year that creates days of never ending sunshine and days of eternal darkness.
Midnight Sun vs. Polar Night
Every summer in Longyearbyen from the end of April till the end of August the sun never sets. This period of 4 months is called the ‘Midnight Sun’, where the sun remains above the horizon 24/7. Think about all the stuff you can do at such long days! Summer around here is anything but tropical though. In July, the warmest month of the year, the highest temperature you’ll get is around 6 degrees.
The counterpart of Midnight Sun is called Polar Night. Autumn arrives near the end of August, evenings become darker and the winter darkness will soon take over. But before all that, autumn surprises you with the most impressive sunsets. Polar Night on the other hand, is a phenomenon whereby the sun doesn’t rise at all and leaves us in total darkness. Weirdly there’s sometimes even more to see by night than by day, because at night there is a natural light. The starry sky and shiny silver moon illuminate the sky and when it’s cold and clear even the Northern Lights appear. The dark period extends from mid-November till the end of January, whereby the average temperature is around -8,5 degrees.
Magical Blue Light
In the first half of February the pitch black days are officially over and make room for a magical blue light that stays for just one hour. At this time the sun peeps above the horizon and the sky will be colored pink and blue. The blue hour will endure for only two weeks. After that, at the beginning of March, the sun will finally fully return!
The Sun Festival
Seeing the sun for the first time in months is something magical, exceptional and even emotional. So, all the needs for celebrating! The week-long Sun festival, ‘Solfestuka’, happens every 10th week of the year on the 8th of March in Longyearbyen and is a very big deal for everyone. The first golden rays of sun will appear over the top of the mountains in the city. This is called the ‘Sun Day’, or ‘Soldagen’ in Norwegian.
The festival features a wide range of events for all ages to celebrate the sun’s return. When you visit Spitsbergen and the festival you can expect anything from snowmobile competitions, ice sculpture workshops, live music (especially jazz) and even themed parties in beachy outfits.
The most special and traditional event at the festival is the gathering around the ‘Sykerhustrappa’. These are the old hospital steps near the church, although the hospital doesn’t exist anymore. Nowadays a new stairs has been built on the same spot to keep witnessing this special moment in its traditionally manor. The first sunlight can be seen on the top step of the stairs due to a small gap in the surrounding mountains which creates an enchanting site.
Living with extreme contrasts
You might ask yourself, why would anyone want to live in 24 hours of complete darkness? Will the four months of 24/7 daylight make up for it? Living in Svalbard is not easy, the population of Svalbard is constantly shifting. Most people move here just for a few years to work in coal mines, tourism or as researchers. Did you know, that women are not allowed to give birth on the island because of the isolation? And that residents need to leave when they cannot take care of themselves anymore? These facts result in a mostly young, healthy and vibrant society.
Influence on wildlife
Despite the extreme conditions Svalbard has also a fascinating wildlife. The diversity of wildlife is the greatest in summertime. All of the migrated birds return after the long dark winter is over and the reindeer, artic fox, walrus, seal, rock ptarmigan and the king of the artic (polar bear) have developed special adaptations to cope with the contrasting seasons and can be seen year-round.
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