The nearly four-month-long polar night is over as the sun made a dazzling return with its rays to Longyearbyen on Saturday. Except in all but the technical sense it actually didn’t and won’t for a few more weeks.
Confused? No biggie – it happens all the time, with even the sun forgetting its norms and doing things like setting twice a day in these parts.
There’s a reason the world’s northernmost town celebrates the return of the sun during the first week (plus an additional day) in March rather than the official first sunrise date of Feb. 16. The surrounding mountains let the town linger in shadow as sunlight tantalizingly creeps its way down the mountain across the channel during the next two weeks.
But that doesn’t keep locals from posting early celebratory photos online from town, nearby expeditions in open areas near town where the sun can actually be seen and settlements further south in Svalbard which are getting an early end to the long night (darkness isn’t the right word since the archipelago has had weeks of usable daytime twilight, not to mention a spectacular winter of Northern Lights).
“After a 56-hour work week, driving over the glacier to Mohnbukta, we saw a glimpse of sun for the first time in 113 days,” wrote Kanerva Karpo, a graphic designer spending her second winter in Longyearbyen, wrote in a Facebook post after an excursion this weekend. “The guide told me he was moved to tears, but in temperatures of -40°C with wind and velocity chill, his tears turned into ice cubes. That’s February for you.”
Actually, as with perception/reality of the sun appearing over Longyearbyen, the cold officially wasn’t quite that bad – although factor in strong winds with gusts topping 40 kilometers an hour in some areas and unofficially that’s easily how it felt. The sun’s rays weren’t making much of an effort to warm things up on its debut weekend, with temperatures in the bay Karpo’s group visited officially hovering around minus 25 Celsius, and other areas in and near Longyearbyen roughly the same (some thermometers in cars, at private cabins and other locales registered temperatures hovering around -30C).
Speaking of cold, hard stats, Longyearbyen’s first sunrise of 2019 on Saturday occurred at 11:22 a.m. and the first sunset was at 1:02 p.m. And while the rest of the world is used to seeing days/nights shorten/lengthen a few minutes a day, here the sun will rapidly make up for lost light as total official sunlight on Sunday was 2 hours, 31 minutes, followed the rest of the week by 3:10, 3:42, 4:11, 4:37, 5:02 and 5:24.
But there was about eight hours of usable daylight (a.k.a. civil twilight) and roughly 12 hours of perceivable twilight on Saturday, which was supplemented by a nearly full moon that resulted in a multitude of enlightening shots of the twin presence of the two orbs.
Some legitimate “first sunrise” photos from Svalbard did find their way into media reports this week, albeit a bit to the south at the Polish Polar Station at Hornsund where the first official appearance of the sun was Feb. 12. But as with Longyearbyen, the staff members at the station had to wait a couple of days until the sun decided to offer its light and warmth for Valentine’s Day.
“The first day lasted an hour and six minutes and we were hoping that for the first time since October 27th we will see the sun,” Tomasz Kopeć, a scientist at the station, wrote on its official Facebook page. “Instead of the sun, we had a beautiful winter at noon – full of cloudy weather, wind and snow falling.”
The sun will be visible (skies willing) for the first time in the main part of Longyearbyen on March 8, when several hundred residents and visitors gather at a memorial near Svalbard Church for the highlight event of Solfestuka, the town’s most popular annual event.
Afterwards the days will continue to lengthen rapidly until the start of the polar summer on April 19, which will be preceded the day before by the oddity of a sunset (12:01 a.m.) occurring before sunrise (1:49 a.m.). That oddity will repeat itself when the polar summer ends Aug. 25 with a sunset at 12:52 a.m. and a sunrise at 1:09 a.m. And just to add a bit of extra weirdness there will be two sunsets on Aug. 26 at 12:03 a.m. and 11:40 p.m., with sunrise at 1:57 a.m. The next polar night begins Oct. 27 (with a normal sunrise followed by sunset beforehand).