Days 124-130: darkness falls

When you live toward the poles, the change in seasons really becomes noticeable.

It’s getting darker.  Actually, it’s been getting darker since the day I got here.  My flight landed at Keflavik the morning of June 29, 2015, a little over a week after summer solstice.  There were two sunsets that day: the first at a minute after midnight, and the second at a minute before.  There was also a sunrise thrown in for good measure, but as a practical matter, it never got dark.

Mighnight on June 29
Earth as seen from above the north pole at midnight, June 29, 2015. Iceland is the bit of land at the edge of the terminator, the dividing line between night and day, near the middle of the image. Image credit: US Naval Observatory.

Most of Iceland lies below the Arctic Circle, so you do technically get some night in the summer; but the sun barely slips beneath the horizon.  You can still sit outside and read a book between sunset and sunrise (a little after three a.m.!) without suffering any eyestrain.

As the days go by, though, that’s no longer true.  My second day in Iceland, the time between sunrise and sunset was a bit shorter than the first: two minutes and fifty-three seconds shorter, to be precise.  The next day, July 1st, the daylight was even shorter, by three minutes and ten seconds.  This difference isn’t really perceptible because without any darkness, you don’t notice the twilight has lasted an extra couple of hundred seconds more than the previous day.

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Midnight on the Fourth of July in Reykjavík. The sun has just dipped below the horizon.

People who visit Iceland in early summer get the advantage of long, long days to explore the country.  This is great, but can take some getting used to.  You have to recalibrate your sense of time: just because it’s sunny doesn’t mean it isn’t ridiculously late.  Or early.  There were any number of days when I found myself trying to speed up what I was doing because I needed to head for home before it got – oh, right, it wasn’t actually going to get dark, was it.

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Half-past midnight on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in mid-July.

If you’re a person who finds it difficult to sleep unless it’s completely dark, you may have issues.  Most hotels in Iceland have blackout curtains in their rooms for tourists who aren’t used to the elongated days.  Luckily, I usually sleep like the dead.  Long hours of daylight aren’t an issue.

One downside of it never getting dark is that you don’t get to see the aurora.  The sun is still pumping out high-energy particles, and they’re still interacting with the wisps of air 50 miles and more above the Earth.  But the norðurljós, as they’re known in Icelandic, aren’t visible in the summer because they can’t compete with daylight.

As the summer goes on, the daylight hours get shorter and the nights begin to lengthen at an accelerating pace.  By the end of July, you’re losing six and a half minutes of daylight every day, and the losses continue at that rate through August before starting to slow down a bit in September.  This means that you’re giving up roughly an hour of daylight every nine days.  It’s still not very noticeable, because the lengthening night happens at – well, at night, when you’re asleep and not really paying attention.

By autumn the darkness has begun chewing away at the day, taking its three-minute bites from both the morning and theevening until the change is unmistakable.  Aurora-hunting begins in earnest in the late summer and continues through the lengthening nights of the fall and winter.  Driving around Iceland at night, you begin running across buses and enormous super-jeeps filled with tourists heading away from the city lights, hoping for a glimpse of the aurora.

By this point, my morning walk to school starts in the dark, and I’m increasingly coming home in the dark.  This nicely complements my classroom days, when it feels like I’m in the dark in thermodynamics and microeconomics … but that’s another matter.

I have three finals in November and a lot of material to cover before Lisa comes to visit, so I can’t join the jeep convoys; but sometimes, the lights are so bright you don’t really need to go very far at all.

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The northern lights as seen from my street corner in Kópavogur.

6 thoughts on “Days 124-130: darkness falls

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