No Light until Valentine’s Day

Longyearsbyen 1999

As our days are getting shorter and we’re once again struggling to adjust to a one hour time change just to squeeze a bit more light out of the day, there is a town on Northern Norway’ s island of Spitsbergen, that just entered its annual 4 month long night…Polar Night to be exact.

The 2,000 or so people in Longyearbyen, the earth’s most northern town, located at 78° north latitude inside the Arctic circle, saw the sun set on October 28 and the next time it rises it’s on Valentine’s Day in February, three and a half months later. Of course 2 months after that the town goes into 4 months of Polar Day when the sun doesn’t set.

But for now people living there experience perpetual darkness four months out of the year and even though I usually wake up when it’s still dark outside, even in summertime, I am sure that this extended period of darkness would affect my life and moods.

Dutch electronics giant Philips is conducting a science experiment with a 4 year old product that helps people wake up to increasing light levels, imitating natural sunlight. If it works, people in this arctic town will migrate much less south when wintertime’s polar nights are nearing every October.
72% of Longyearsbyen’s participating population validated Philip’s experiment by claiming that waking up during the polar night was a real daily struggle, while 94% expected the Wake Up Light to improve their daily lives during this period.

Island History

A Coal Miners' Town turned to tourism

Longyearbyen, situated on the westcoast of the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago was discovered by Dutch Navigator Willem Barentsz in 1596. Even though the island were frequented for many reasons by different nationalities, it was never settled, even though its economic importance in mining and hunting,whaling was quite promising. It remained No Man’s Land (terra nullius)  – until 1920 when as part of the Treaty of Versailless, which officially ended Worldwar I, the Treaty of Spitsbergen was signed. This treaty made Svalbard part of the kingdom of Norway, but allowed citizens of other signing nations equal rights to residence, property, commercial activities and research. As a result, people from many nations live on Svalbard today.

With coal being the early energy source behind the industrial revolution, the coal mines on Spitsbergen became of real importance and Lansing Michigan born American Businessman John Munroe Longyear with several investment partners bought assets in coal research and exploration in 1906 and established the Arctic Coal Company (operated from Boston) and build a settlement for workers that became Longyear City, later turning into Longyearbyen (byen is Norwegian for town/city).

The attraction

Due to the discovery in the 1930’s that bodies buried in Spitsbergen were not decomposing, because the permafrost preserved them, people cannot be buried there anymore.
This discovery created the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, an Arctic safe capable of storing millions of crop seeds, is located near Longyearbyen. Global Crop Diversity Trust administers the facility. The safe has been designed to protect against natural and human disasters, including global warming, floods and fires, and nuclear holocaust. The site was chosen for both its remoteness and ambient temperature of the permafrost.

Longyearbyen: The Northern Most organized town on Earth

As a result of these developments, an important University Center opened in Longyearbyen in 1993, providing lectures in geophysics, arctic biology, geology and Arctic technology as well as bachelor, master and PhD positions. The faculty consists of 20 fulltime professors, 21 assistant professors and 120 guest lecturers. English is the official language of work, and currently about 350 international students take at least one course per year at UNIS. The student body consists of 50% Norwegian and 50% international students; there are no tuition fees, and most students live in six renovated mining barracks in Nybyen.

In 2009 the airport served 150,000 passenger movements and tourism is becoming a major source of income, in spite of  chilly summers and bitter cold winters.

Let there be Light

As medical science has pointed out the importance of light to human wellbeing, Philips Electronics introduced the Philips Wake Up Light as an experiment to the community, which by those who are participating, is hailed as a fantastic experience which helps alleviating the usual condition of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), thought to be caused by light deprivation and a growing number of mental health specialists are recommending Light Therapy to patients with symptoms of depression.

Philips claims that light gradually increasing in 30 minutes before your set wake up time will positively affect the energy hormones as they are preparing your body to wake up, a statement that is corroborated by most
The Philips Wake Up Light uses a 300-Lux lamp with 20 brightness settings, which is rated to last 6,000 hours.

Interesting is that the experiment is already 4 years old in a digital world that is supposed to instantly get the word out.
The 325 households (people) in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen who got the light that retails around $130, said almost unanimously that at times it was almost too soothing, coaxing them back to sleep to the relaxing sounds of playful birds or wind chimes, an extra that is build into the gizmo, which for a small surcharge can also accommodate an iPhone or iPod for sounds and music of your choice.

I think I just found the perfect Christmas gift.

One comment

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