Saying Goodnight to the Midnight Sun, If You Saw It

Nordkapp by Yan Zhang

The midnight sun at Nordkapp. Photo by Yan Zhang. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

We’re coming up on a significant moment in Nordkapp (North Cape), Norway, the northernmost point of continental Europe. The midnight sun will soon be departing for 2012, and the area will once again register sunset and moonrise in the data on Norway’s internationally acclaimed weather site, Yr.no.

I doubt I am making anyone in Norway happy by noticing this, but it registers strongly with me this year. For the first time, my travels to Norway landed me in the country on the summer solstice. And though I did not travel above the Arctic Circle to witness the 24 hours of the sun’s presence, I encountered the constant light of a Norwegian summer night – a far cry from Philadelphia’s 7:30 p.m. sunset, which dwindles to complete darkness by 8:45.

The retreat of the all-day sun below the horizon is a bittersweet time. While I am busy in Philadelphia reminding myself with relief that the days are steadily getting shorter, I know that winter’s darkness will really trouble us here only from Daylight Saving Time’s end on November 4, when it is unlikely to be accompanied by very cold temperatures. And though a sunrise of 7:15 a.m. and a sunset of 4:30 p.m. make us city-dwellers feel like we’re in perpetual lockdown in a windowless office building, it’s shorter than the 9:15 a.m. / 3:15 p.m. winter daylight of Oslo – and no sunrise and sunset at all in Nordkapp’s polar night, a time of special light but no sunshine at all.

11.30 in Østfold

June 20, 2012, 11:45 pm – Østfold, Norway

Once the midnight sun makes its farewell, the progress toward darkness is swift. As August begins, sunrise in Nordkapp is already leaping later in 10-minute intervals per day, with sunset leaping earlier at approximately the same rate. Philadelphia experiences variations of only a minute per day, poking toward autumn as if it were on the other side of the Girard Avenue bridge on the Schuylkill Expressway.

The midnight sun’s farewell from northern Norway coincides with a summer in which the sun has put in less of a national appearance than usual, causing Norwegian media to declare it “the summer that was rained away.” I miraculously managed to catch one of Oslo’s two (count ’em) completely clear days for the month of June. Still, I probably saw more sunshine before my July 5 return than a stay-at-home Norwegian saw all through July, which is making a strong contending push for wettest month ever in the national record books.

Weather-wise, neither side of the Atlantic has had much to envy the other this year. While large swaths of the United States – an area not so widely affected in 55 years – have suffered from tremendous drought, northern Europe has barely been able to keep its head above water.

Window onto Heddal Bygdetun

Rain mists the window of one of the historic buildings at Heddal Bygdetun – Notodden, Telemark, Norway

In the United Kingdom, rain has damaged potato crops and reduced sales of summer items in shops. It has threatened barley and wheat, as it has in Ireland, France, Germany, and Sweden, thereby raising concern in the beer and liquor trade. While the winter wheat in the southern Skåne region of Sweden escaped most of the rain, crops to the north have suffered. (Stockholm this year had the wettest June in 225 years, to give an idea of the severity of the rainfall there.) Norway’s strawberry harvest fell prey to the rain, and historic timber buildings are under threat from the constant soaking.

All these are severe effects of this climatically erratic summer, and many of them will take time to have their impact on most of the population. Like repairs to heat-buckled runways and interstates in the United States, reconstruction of flood-destroyed homes and bridges shows up later in the balance sheets, as do higher prices for food and beverages. In the short term, we feel the inconvenience of disrupted plans, the gloom of constant clouds or the suffocation of seemingly endless heat, and the edgy, helpless awareness of time ticking down.

I had hopes of watching the June 23 Sankthans bonfires blazing away in the perpetual twilight of southern Norway’s summer; but it proved tactically formidable. The midsummer celebration coincided with the rainiest evening thus far on my journey. After my friends and I enjoyed an evening of grilling (pleasant for us, since we left it to the poor host to run out in the downpour to the grill), we set out shortly before midnight to see if we could spot the town bonfire – moved this year to a more remote location – amid a slackening of the rainfall. Our intrepid leader found us a spot from which to sight it: a sad orange blur out in the archipelago.

Midnight Sankthans in Kragerø

June 23, 11:40 pm – Kragerø, Telemark, Norway

Then the heavens reopened, and we fled.

Yet, despite the bonfire being a wash this year, my midsummer experience was not. Few Americans witness a night without total darkness – much less many in succession. Even though the sun in southern Norway dips below the horizon, twilight lingers, extending the “blue hour” (blåtime) right up to the sun’s return. It is a very special phenomenon, even if it does make a person a little hyper.

I came home to twilight that was ending before 9:00 p.m., and to the brown lawn and high weeds of not quite enough rain. (Here in Philly, we don’t paint our lawns. It’s the least of our many concerns.) And between the two weather fronts, I returned with a greater respect for nature, its weather shifts, and its seasons; the amazing effects of the Earth’s rotation, its position in the solar system, and our place in the universe.

Despite our glory in our achievements and self-assurance in our ability to control our destiny, nature turns our confidence on its head. I think that’s a good thing. For not only do enduring through and learning to appreciate nature’s changes build character; they provide one of humankind’s least controversial ways of connecting with one another.

Even when we find obsession with weather and seasons ridiculous, our conversation about these – apart from the debate over climate change – rarely takes on the quality of personal judgment and accusation we adopt in economics, politics, and other social issues. We are kinder in natural disasters than in man-made ones, more willing to sympathize, joke, and buoy each other up than we are over other misfortunes.

Whatever our experience of it, the midnight sun will set. The seasons will change, and the weather with them. And at the crossroads of confidence that the change is not permanent and helplessness to do a thing to affect these larger phenomena, we often find it in ourselves to become better people.

These days, that is nothing to take lightly.

MidnightSolstice

Summer Solstice, midnight – Østfold