Land of the Midnight Sun

Theresa at the Midnight Sun Baseball Game in Fairbanks, Alaska around midnight on the summer solstice

We haven’t seen the night sky since we were in Dawson Creek, British Columbia on June 8th, over seven weeks ago.  And then it was more dark blue than black.  The last truly dark sky in which we could see all the stars was in Great Falls, Montana on May 19.  Since then we’ve been travelling in Canada and Alaska, land of the midnight sun.

As you probably know, the Earth is tilted on its axis off the plane of its revolution around the sun.  This stroke of cosmic luck is responsible for the four seasons, relatively moderate life-supporting temperatures across the globe, and the midnight sun.

So in simple terms, between May and July, the Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, and hence receives more hours of direct sunlight and more heating, causing summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere.  Conversely, between November and January, the Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, causing winter.  As a side note, if the northern hemisphere is receiving the most sunlight between May and July, why do we generally consider summer to be from June through August?  That’s because the planet’s oceans and land take a while to heat up and cool down, thus adding about a one month delay to the seasons.

The northern hemisphere is tilted most toward the sun on the summer solstice, which occurs around June 21 each year.  On that day, people who live on the Arctic Circle (about 66 degrees north latitude) will see the sun dip just to the horizon, skirt along the horizon for a while, then climb back up into the sky.  For those even farther north, the sun won’t set for weeks or even months during summer. 

On the summer solstice this year, we were in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is about 200 miles below the Arctic Circle.  That was the night of the annual Midnight Sun Baseball game, when the sun set at 12:48 am and rose again at 2:58 am, yielding 21 hours and 50 minutes of daylight.  It’s important to note that even though the sun was below the horizon for 2 hours that night, it never dipped far enough below the horizon for the sky to get dark, resulting in a twilight.

There are many obvious benefits to the long days of summer.  Once we entered the land of the midnight sun, it felt like we no longer had to rush.  We didn’t need to wake up early in order to finish a hike before it got dark, and we occasionally found ourselves still on the hiking trail at 9 or 10 p.m.  We also didn’t have to worry about getting to the next RV park before dark (it’s much easier to get setup at a new campground in the daylight).

Another huge benefit is we didn’t have to turn on the lights in our RV (and hence drain our battery power) to read, do housework, or take a shower.  Nor did we need flashlights or headlamps while outdoors.  Last night around midnight was the first time since May that we had to turn on the RV lights.

The extended daylight also tricked our bodies into feeling like we never had to sleep.  We would find ourselves wide awake at 1 a.m. and go to bed later and later each night.  But an interesting phenomena would occur.  Instead of growing gradually more sleepy as the night wore on, we’d remain fully awake and alert until the wee hours when drowsiness would hit us like a ton of bricks, and then we’d have to SLEEP RIGHT NOW!

But as with everything, there are pros and cons.  The first problem that most people mention about perpetual daylight is a difficulty going to sleep.  Many Alaskans buy double-thick shades and heavy curtains to block the light.  Fortunately the shades in our RV are fairly dark, though the translucent vent over our bed served as a large, unwanted nightlight.  Occasionally Theresa and I had trouble falling asleep, but it helped that we were usually exhausted each night from the long days and strenuous hikes.

Ironically the long days don’t necessarily translate into more actual sunlight.  The weather is so crappy in Alaska and Canada — and the sky so frequently cloudy — that it’s quite likely we enjoyed more direct sunlight during the short winter days in the desert southwest than we did during the long summer days in the far north.

Fortunately the greatest disadvantage of the midnight sun is something we didn’t have to experience: winter darkness.  As one would expect, 22 hours of daylight in the summer implies 22 hours of darkness in winter.  Almost every Alaska resident with whom we spoke about winter mentioned that the darkness bothered them much more than the extreme cold.  Some Alaskan villages north of the Arctic Circle don’t see the sun for a couple months during the winter.  This extended darkness can lead to depression, lack of energy, and weight gain – all symptoms of SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder.  Alaskans also have a higher rate of drug and alcohol abuse.  To avoid the darkness and cold, many Alaska residents head south to the continental U.S. for the winter.  Winter darkness is one of the many challenges that makes Alaska a place for only the truly hardy.

Last night was the first night since May when the sun set before 11:00 p.m.  We really enjoyed the long days and midnight sun and are sad to see them go.

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