The Arctic Circle: Under the Midnight Sun and into the Polar Night

The Arctic region has the very best of nature: snow-capped mountains, the Aurora Borealis, wonderfully scenic coastlines, the ice cap, polar bears, whales, and vast, empty, unspoiled wilderness. It also has two of the most fascinating natural phenomenon, occurring every year without fail.

The Polar Night and the Midnight Sun are unique to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Since the latter is frequented predominantly by millions of penguins and few people, to experience either means travelling north, into Siberia, Northern Canada, Greenland, or Northern Scandinavia.

The northernmost populated regions of the planet – Svalbard and a small part of Northern Greenland – experience months of darkness where the sun doesn’t rise and the small communities are plunged into the depths of a chilling Arctic winter. In contrast, there is a period of several weeks in the summer where the sun circles around and around overhead, never getting close to the horizon. Both are a struggle those not acclimatised.

I visited Swedish Lapland and the north of Norway during the Polar Night on a two-week trip over Christmas. Kiruna was the first stop, arriving at the little airport late in the evening on a cold, crisp night. Being just north of the Arctic Circle, the Polar Night in Kiruna is short-lived and a little different from the northernmost regions. The sun is close by: hovering just below the horizon for a few days in December. Although it never rises, with the right conditions it can create a beautiful sunset sky which lasts for hours during the day.

It’s enough to feel like a normal day time, and certainly enough light for a few hours for a “normal” day out and about. Then towards the end of the short period of twilight, the sun “sets” and disappears. This gave the perfect balance between stunning daytime views and enough darkness in the evening to see the Northern Lights.

Heading further north to Tromsø felt quite different. It was a bit more cloudy there which meant the hint of a sunrise/sunset that did appear was almost entirely masked, and instead of any kind of normal daylight it was instead a dark, blue-ish hue for a few hours during the day. An extended blue hour.

There was enough light to head out and about; whale watching, hiking. But by early afternoon it was already getting dark, and had a feeling of being the end of the day. Lunchtime was just over, but it felt like there was just enough time for a beer before heading to bed, such is the novelty of the Polar Night.

Much like the conditions in Kiruna, this kind of darkness provides ample opportunity to see the Northern Lights, and Tromsø proved to be the best aurora trip I have had so far. This included a wonderful Christmas Day display where the aurora was easily visible right over the city.

While the Polar Night takes a bit of getting used to, the Midnight Sun is something else again. Depending on your definition, it can mean the sun is visible when midnight hits – which also happens in the sub-Arctic region – or it can mean the sun is in the sky all day and night, and doesn’t set at any time. I like the latter. Even the term ‘Midnight Sun’ conjures up a little mystery.

In Greenland, travelling between Kangerlussuaq, Ilulissat and Qaanaaq, I had a fortnight without darkness; two full weeks where the sun never touched the horizon.

Being on holiday in places as remote as this during the Midnight Sun takes a bit of getting used to. On any trip, my norm is to get up early and make the most of the daylight hours. But when the daylight hours are all hours, there isn’t any need to rush out in the morning. If hiking from 11pm-8am is your thing, the conditions are perfect for it. In fact, a quiet area will be almost silently still if you pick your time this way. It might even be the best way to avoid the mosquitoes.

Ilulissat, where I visited for the second time on this trip, is perhaps my favourite, favourite place. It’s going to get more touristy as the years go on but at the moment still remains quiet enough to enjoy in relative peace. The scenery is spectacular; beyond what I can properly describe. Just outside the town, still with the howls of the huskies hanging in the air, are spots where there is an awe-inspiring view. Icebergs, many the size of towns, sit in the Disko Bay, some for months on end, their size skewering them to the sea floor until, through calving, melting or other icebergs crashing into them, they break up enough to float out into the ocean.

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There isn’t even a hint of turning up and thinking “okay, seen it”. It’s a spot to sit at, potentially for hours on end, as the landscape ahead changes subtly as the icejord pushes more and more out towards the sea. If you’re lucky, you’ll see calving and hear the unique explosions as millions of years worth of ice breaks up right before your eyes.

The icefjord is spectacular, and my favourite of many walks there was when I wandered out of the town to a nice spot just before midnight, and saw the Midnight Sun lighting up the icebergs in the Disko Bay under perfect silence.

Travelling further north in Greenland, to the wonderfully isolated village of Qaanaaq, provided yet another fantastic Midnight Sun experience. This far north, the sun simply circles around overhead for weeks and the village exists under perpetual daylight. The idea of a 9-5 appears to be alien. Husky puppies wander around at 2am, families are out for a walk and children are playing into the wee small hours. If I didn’t wear a watch, I would never have known whether it was noon or midnight. And it wouldn’t have mattered.

Regardless of the time of year, the Arctic region provides a wealth of nature at its very best. But the Midnight Sun and the Polar Night offer something different again. A glimpse into the life of people in some of the most extreme parts of the world. One of the most incredible regions you will ever visit.

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