I am speaking to Polina Bublik from my flat in east London, where a communal disdain for our now-regular 4pm sunsets hums through the streets. In Longyearbyen however, where Polina has lived for three "unforgettable" years, the sun does not rise for three months. It is called the Polar Night.
Longyearbyen in Norway can be found in a U-shaped valley on the shores of Adventfjorden. Located in the High Arctic, 1,316 kilometres from the North Pole, it is the world’s northernmost permanently inhabited community. Glaciers chiselled the terrain into sharp peaks, a valley and a fjord, and coal mining brought the first settlers in 1906. While Longyearbyen belongs to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, its many-hued homes suggest it belongs in a Wes Anderson film.
"POLAR BEARS ATTACK EXTREMELY QUICKLY WITHOUT WARNING. BE ACCOMPANIED BY A LOCAL GUIDE WITH A FIREARM WHEN LEAVING THE SETTLEMENTS," reads Svalbard’s official tourism website. An estimated 3,000 polar bears inhabit the archipelago. Polina, a photographer, is one of the 2,417 human residents. Her photography depicts falling stars, jagged peaks piled with snow and blue fjords that shift icily in hue, yet she speaks of a sameness in her Arctic surrounds. "The landscape in Svalbard is monotonous as it is elsewhere in the Arctic. There are no trees, only horizon, mountains, ocean and sky," she says. Surrounded by a busy London street market, late-night grocers and local personalities blasting '80s ballads from their bicycles, I contemplate a landscape punctuated by absolutely nothing.
Living in darkness from late November to early February while polar bears saunter about might sound like the makings of a gritty survival thriller – mainly to Brits who cannot believe it is dark by 4pm – but for Polina it is a time to luxuriate in a part cat, part caveman lifestyle. "My usual winter day is a long sleep. I have a lot of coffee and chocolate, and I check the weather forecast and prepare my photographic equipment. Many city dwellers feel tired and find it difficult without the sun but I can afford to sleep as much as I want to. For me, winter in Longyearbyen is like Christmas for several months. It’s such an enjoyable time."
The late-night appearance of the world’s most famous light show, paired with Polina’s flexible schedule, means she is voluntarily nocturnal. Aurora Borealis – the northern lights – was the reason Polina moved to Longyearbyen. Some days, she only leaves the house to see these iridescent threads of green.
There is a common tongue among intrepid souls who were raised in colder climes and Polina is no different. "There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing," she says. Every night, Polina layers up, secures a position in the snow and lets her equipment do the work while she sits in awe. Her nose gets a little icy.
Mari Langehaug, a former Longyearbyen resident, also thrives during the Polar Night. The 34-year-old finds it difficult to sleep during these months, mainly because of her packed social calendar. "Longyearbyen is very social during the winter, at least before coronavirus. And by winter I mean the dark season. In many ways it is still winter when daylight returns but when it does, everyone goes on adventures during the day. During the dark season, everyone is stuck in town, meaning everyone can be social, partaking in indoor activities such as climbing and gym."
This positive mindset – Polina’s fondness for Aurora Borealis and Mari’s commitment to sport and friendship – is linked to the low occurrence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in Norway. "The symptoms of SAD are similar to depression, including low mood, low self-esteem, lethargy, sleep problems and feelings of anxiety. If you have SAD, your symptoms will usually begin in the autumn each year – possibly triggered by low levels of daylight – such as shorter, darker days and spending less time outside," says Caroline Harper, a mental health specialist at Bupa UK.
Kari Leibowitz, a psychology researcher, relocated from sunny California to Tromsø – a Norwegian city that spends three months in darkness – to understand why Norway had relatively few cases of SAD. She surveyed 238 respondents from Svalbard, southern Norway and northern Norway, surmising that those who experience more darkness and lower temperatures reframed their thinking and maintained a "positive wintertime mindset" which led to higher levels of seasonal wellbeing.
Caroline reiterates that reframing the meaning of specific events or seasons can help to change your outlook. "You may find that, after time, you no longer have such a negative association with winter. Reframing events can break a cycle of thoughts and help to improve your outcomes, which you may benefit from long into future winters."
In a practical sense, she recommends drawing open the curtains, eating foods rich in vitamin D and omega-3, contacting friends and family for support, adding plants to your workspace and resisting the urge to always fire up a home workout – it’s better to get outdoors when you can. "Even a cloudy day will provide your body with the light it’s craving." Caroline notes that the symptoms and treatment of SAD vary from person to person, so contacting your doctor might be necessary. "Your doctor will ask you about your day-to-day life and your symptoms and will provide the right treatment for you. This may be self-help such as the lifestyle changes mentioned above, light therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy."
During winter in Nuuk, Greenland, the world's northernmost capital, 19-year-old Seqininnguaq Poulsen and their Kalaallit family eat meat from the animals they hunted through summer and autumn. In December and January, Nuuk receives four hours of daylight, while parts of northern Greenland experience no daylight for up to four months. The darkness does not sit well with Seqininnguaq, who suffers from SAD. "I notice a lot of different changes in my behaviour and mood. I start to get tired for most of the day, lose my appetite, sleep a lot more than usual and just feel generally lazy." As someone who has experienced severe depression, the Indigenous rights activist finds winter "intense".
Along with increasing their vitamin D intake and taking walks with friends, Seqininnguaq finds peace in creativity and artistic expression. When their mood is particularly low, they turn to painting, traditional beading and poetry exploring mental health and critiquing colonialism. Seqininnguaq’s love of creativity and their friends carries them through to the short summer. "Summertime in Nuuk is very nice but very short. The average temperature is around 10-20°C and the sun never really sets, so we spend all night outside. This summer, my friends and I spent all night jamming and singing outside under the midnight sun. During the summer, you rarely see people in the streets because people are fishing, hunting, hanging out in their cabins, picking berries or travelling."
Despite several (longitudinal) degrees of separation, a deep nostalgia for summer seems to be universal. Memories of my Australian childhood – school holidays spent boogie boarding on sandy beaches – get me through some of London’s darker days. For Violetta Samoilova, it is cloudberry picking and barbecues on the tundra. She lives by the Laptev Sea in Tiksi, Russia, the world’s northernmost town with more than 5,000 inhabitants. Since functioning as a major Arctic seaport during the Soviet era, the town has faced rapid population decline.
The 23-year-old is proud of her Russian hometown despite its "harsh, Arctic" climate, with temperatures ranging between -26.7°C and -33.8°C during winter. It remains dark from mid November to February. When the region isn’t whipped up in blizzards moving at a speed of 30 metres per second, Violetta makes the most of the extremes. As a child, she boarded down snow-covered hills after school. Sometimes her gloves would freeze over. "Today's children also board down the mountains, play tag on the street and, fortunately, do not play on the computer."
Naturally, she spends some winter days thinking only of sunshine. "During our summers, we go to the tundra for barbecues with relatives or friends. In August, we pick mushrooms and cloudberries. My favourite time in summer is the white nights when it is light for 24 hours. On such days you don’t want to go home, you want to be more in nature, breathe fresh air and enjoy the sea."