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northern lights in a dark sky over houses
Vadim Nefedoff/Shutterstock

Local Secrets of Surviving Polar Night

Polar night—it basically means living in near-constant darkness during the winter. In places like Uummannaq, Greenland, there are just two to three hours of light per day (and it’s more a post-dusk light than full on sunshine). Fairbanks, Alaska has less than four hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year. How do the inhabitants of these frozen places deal with such short, cold days? I asked them.

How Residents Cope

As someone who dreads winter, I was surprised to hear that it’s common for Greenlanders to embrace the dark days of the season. Karl Ole Petersen, of Greenland-based Uummannaq Fjord Tours, makes the long nights sound sweet: “We cope with the dark by being more together with the family and friends and have more activities together like playing Greenlandic games and a lot of music and dance. In short, the dark times bring us closer. It gives us more opportunity to entertain each other (for example telling funny and scary stories)”.

This sounds like a much better way of coping with winter than binge-watching Netflix and eating carbs.

The Effect on Mood

As anyone who’s experienced the winter doldrums can attest to, the lack of sunlight can have a real effect on the psyche. Martin Sørensen, also with Uummannaq Fjord Tours explains, “The dark period affects all our sleeping habits, we sleep more and it affects our mood that is why we need to be closer to each other and support each other, hence families spend more time together … Some people get depression, out of it and this period is very hard for them, but in this modern world they use light therapy lamps. The dark time give also more time to go in yourself, see what is wrong and right. I like the darkness and respect it, for me it means relaxation time and cozy evenings with candles in windows.”

Scientific studies have shown that using light therapy boxes can help with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and may be worth a try if you’re feeling down due to the dark days. (There are even travel-sized ones available if you’re vacationing somewhere with polar night.)

On the bright side, if you struggle with sleeping due to sunlight in the summer, dark mornings can be like a natural blackout curtain. According to Jerry Evans of Explore Fairbanks, “Sleeping is never a problem in the dark of winter. Although it can be a little more difficult in the morning to get out of your warm bed when it’s still dark and cold. Some people slip in a quick trip to the tropics or turn on full spectrum lights to get a dose of mood elevating sunshine, but in general Fairbanksans are renowned for their friendly can-do demeanor no matter the season.”

What do People Do?

Instead of huddling inside all winter, people who live in polar night places make the most of it. In Greenland, “We go tours and watch the northern light dancing over us. [We go] dogsledding on the roads until the fiord is frozen down,” says Sørensen. Evans agrees: “Visitors often choose Fairbanks for a winter travel vacation in Alaska because of its darkness. That darkness is actually an advantage for another activity: viewing the northern lights. During the shortened daylight hours, there is ample opportunities to get outside for various activities. Once it turns darker, visitors can stay inside to explore the vibrant art, culture and food scene.”

“There is no temperature too cold for Fairbanks residents not to put on their cold weather gear and get out and enjoy the great outdoors. Snowmobiling, aurora chasing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, ice-fishing, hiking, bonfires, you name it, we do it.”

More from SmarterTravel:

Caroline Morse Teel lives in Boston, and hates that it gets dark so early in the winter. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for polar night and other travel photos and around the world. 

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