GLOW IN THE DARK: Months of darkness typically mean black times in Arctic communities, but for many in Longyearbyen it’s a period of socializing, exploring and other types of illumination

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One woman says she prepared for her first dark season in Longyearbyen by stockpiling knitting, cooking and other supplies in anticipation of long months of chilly isolation, but how communally embracing the world’s northernmost town is of the many “other” forms of light during the continuous night quickly and inescapably dawned upon her.

“I went to so many activities I didn’t even touch the things I bought to keep myself from getting depressed,” she said. While mostly a blessing that also meant “I feel like I don’t have time for anything because people always want to meet up…(there was) no time for myself.”

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The skies might be officially dark for months, but natural “alternatives” such as the Northern Lights means outdoor activities in and around Longyearbyen remain a glowing option. Photo by Morten Dyrstad / Longyearbyen Lokalstyre.

She and about 10 other locals shared what the dark season means to them during a gathering at Longyearbyen Library a few days before the winter solstice (calling it the shortest day of the year is nonsensical since the skies are dark 24/7 for a full month before and after, plus there’s several more weeks with no sunrise or sunset).

In many small and remote Arctic communities the dark season is associated with widespread alcoholism, domestic abuse, depression and other problems, but Longyearbyen is largely (but hardly entirely) an exception due to its unique characteristics – perhaps most notably the fact “everyone is from someplace else” and here voluntarily in pursuit of some opportunity/adventure.

“Some people think it’s a very nice winter,” said Ana Paula Souza, a psychotherapist who was one of the two hosts of the discussion. “They love the dark season, they love the sharing, they love the cooking.”

The list of positives about the local dark season was plentiful among those gathered: northern lights decorating the dark skies, full (or nearly) moonlight making for easy visibility outdoors due to Svalbard’s snowy/icy landscape, constant indoor/outdoor activities with the community and family/friends, a lack of tourists (contrary to most of the year when they’re essential to the economy), an ease of ability to sleep (especially compared to the equally long midnight summer season), and even/especially the weeks of glowing anticipation when the horizon begins to glow in dazzling colors as the sun finally starts to return.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” said a Swedish woman, noting the winters in the northern area she resides in her homeland are notoriously depressing.

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Tourists hoping to experience the Northern Lights and other winter wonders of Svalbard instead found themselves forced to board a midnight bus to the airport when they were exiled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

But things are somewhat different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting the usual proliferation of public activities and the ability of some to travel to see families during the holiday (or have them visit here). That sense of restricted confinement, along the extreme economic hardship many are experiencing, is creating an environment with similarities to some of those “typical” problematic Arctic communities.

“In a sense we are very privileged because no corona cases” due to the extreme restrictions enacted for Svalbard due to its remoteness and lack of medical facilities, said Zdenka Sokolickova, the other host. But it also means widespread disruptions, such as the Thai community of more than 100 residents largely not returning to their homeland for long holiday visits extending until the end of January.

“I know a lot of people suffering because of this,” said the woman who recounted her surprisingly communal first dark season (as with other non-hosts, her name is being voluntarily withheld in the spirit of the discussion’s “frankly discuss personal feelings” invitation). “They were told not to eat the forbidden fruit and now they go bananas.”

The feeling of lost control can create or add to people’s suffering, which many already do during the holiday season, Souza said.

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Dozens of Longyearbyen residents participate in a torchlight walk from Nybyen to the town center during the first Sunday of Advent this year. The event is among the nearly non-stop communal activities normally occurring during the holiday season, although many this year have been limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“It’s also a time to be happy, a time to celebrate, but that’s not the reality for everyone,” she said. In addition to the holiday blues many normally experience, this year some are questioning “if it is allowed to be happy when so many people are unhappy” because they don’t have money for presents – or even food.

People also tend to brood by making mental lists of things not accomplished during the year and “waiting for next year” in the sense things will somehow magically change on Jan. 1, Souza said. But in the sense of the “wherever you go, there you are” cliche, she said folks need to accept the reality the same challenges will be present, especially during these unique times.

“I think it’s a time for us to lower the expectations a little bit,” she said.

Some at the gathering said they are making adjustments to cope, especially after so many months of coping with COVID-19 restrictions.

“This year is not like many years because like many people I’m not going home,” said an artist who moved here from aboard a couple of years ago. “I’m a little missing my friends, but it’s not terrible…that’s why I got Skype.”

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Zdenka Sokolickova and her family enjoy the holiday lights and dark skies on Longyearbyen during Christmas of 2019. Photo courtesy of Zdenka Sokolickova via Facebook.

Sokolickova, a Czech Republic native who moved with her family to Longyearbyen a couple of years ago for a research project about societal changes here due to factors such as climate change, said her kids aren’t showing any indications the dark season is affecting them.

“They don’t care,” she said. “They’re like yeah, yeah it’s dark, but the routine (at school and home) is the same.”

The novelty of the first dark season last year was something of a natural high, which continued as the Christmas season arrived, Sokolickova said. But then in January she and many other locals got ill – in what some speculated without proof was an early and unreported COVID-19 epidemic – and that infected her feelings about Svalbard as well.

“I felt really bad, really depressed,” she said. “It was around the 20th of January and then I really hated the dark season.”

This year “I hope it will be the better because I know it will be the same,” she said (minus, obviously and hopefully, serious illness).

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A polar bear wandering on a street near the middle of town at around 5 a.m. during late December last year was a startling and unique sight despite the always-present threat they may approach settlements. But because they cannot be seen in the dark they’re a source of uneasiness for some local residents during the dark season. Photo courtesy of The Governor of Svalbard.

Many at the meeting and throughout the community accept that COVID-19 will inevitably reach Svalbard, with some speculating the reopening of The University Centre in Svalbard in January is a likely possibility due to the large number of foreigners who will arrive. That is supplementing some of the darker uncertain aspects of life here that can haunt locals even during a normal year – such as the possibility of polar bear encounters, which became all-too-real during the holidays last year when at least two wandered into the central part of Longyearbyen for perhaps the first time in the modern era.

One man said he’s always looking around him warily while working outdoors at the mountaintop Svalbard Satellite Station near town, while one of the women at the gathering said just taking the trash out to the dumpsters is reason to be a little anxious.

“What I’ve noticed helps me a lot when I’m out is to test the sound of the snow because polar bears are quite heavy, so if you hear your steps you’ll probably hear a polar bear as well,” the woman with the unexpectedly busy first dark season said.

But some locals end up retreating – not just indoors, but within themselves – for the reasons the dark season is oppressive to so many in other Arctic areas.

“I know people who drink every weekend during the dark season because they have nothing else to do,” said the man working at SvalSat.

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The mountaintop Svalbard Satellite Station offers brilliant night views of the Northern Lights and other astronomical wonders due to its isolation from the city lights of Longyearbyen. But the isolation can also turn chilly due to severe storms of thoughts of nearby polar bears. Photo courtesy of the European Space Agency.

Svalbard, due to requirements that residents be self-sufficient in all senses, lacks many of the psychological services available on the mainland, including treatment programs for alcoholism and other abuse. Souza said she can often help residents who are “down” during the dark season, but not those clinically depressed, especially if they’re prone to it regardless of the season.

“The people I have experience with here who might have a seasonal affective disorder when they’re already in a situation where psychotherapy can’t help much,” she said.

There are some aids available for less-severe cases, such as Longyearbyen Hospital which offers a machine providing light therapy, Souza said. But she emphasized such treatment requires consistent timing and cycles to be effective, so people can’t realistically hope to just buy a “therapy light” for home use and expect it to be effective.

Most agreed the “lighter times” provided by the full moon is a mood-booster (the next one in Longyearbyen is Dec. 30 in what officially is known as a “cold moon”). And while the first part of January can be a downer with the holidays past and length of continuous darkness taking hold (“when the light is approaching, but it’s not yet there is the worst,” Sokolickova said), the sensation toward the end of the month is dawning anticipation.

“That’s when I think it’s the most beautiful, actually,” the artist remarked. For the first-winter socializer, seeing the horizon glow briefly and then lengthen quickly by the day “that’s the most exciting thing ever.”