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  • Writer's pictureValerie Brooke, MD

Alaskan Light

I cannot say for sure that the things I have noticed in the last month up here in Anchorage are truly unique to Alaska, as they could also be considered normal in Northern Canada, Norway, Greenland, or even Northern Russia.  Any place that is far up north, thousands of miles away from the equator, and close to the North Pole likely has similarities when it comes to the climate, the weather, and the wildlife. 


The first unusual phenomena I’ve been acutely aware of is the sunlight, and not just because there is so much of it, having passed the spring equinox and heading everyday towards the longest day of light on June 21st, the summer solstice.  About a week after we arrived, Ronando and I went to a local pub in the Captain Cook Hotel, named after James Cook, British explorer and cartographer who attempted to find the Northern Passage and mapped much of the Alaskan coastline.  We were trying to understand why there was so much light—and in the winter, dark—based upon the location of the planet and the sun.  We drew it out on a napkin, recalling back dusty diagrams we had learned back in middle school, with the tilt of the earth towards the sun in the summer, and away from the sun in the winter.  I think I figured it out, although I had to draw the picture again while writing this blog. 


There’s the why, but how much light and dark will we experience?  Driving to work last week, I listened to the weather reports on NPR, and heard something I had never heard reported before.  “Tomorrow the sun will rise at 6:25 am and will set at 9:29 pm, an additional 6 minutes of daylight, equaling a total of 15 hours and 4 minutes of sunlight.”  Wow, I thought, the light report is part of everyday life here, how fascinating!  I’m sure once December comes, I won’t be as excited to hear the light report, as the numbers will be decreasing every day instead of increasing.  Or maybe I will be excited to hear that there will at least be some light, as I keep hearing from the locals how newbies can struggle with the long dark days.  Interesting, the exact time of sunrise and sunset isn’t the end of the story.  There’s also twilight, and several different types of twilight.  I’ve been checking an online Alaskan Daylight calculator to prepare myself for what’s to come in the next several months, and when doing so, noted extra columns of “civil twilight.”  What is that? 


A few google searches later I learned about twilight, that time in the morning and evening when the sun is below the horizon, but there is still some light in the sky.  There’s civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight, each defined by how many degrees the sun is below the horizon.  Civil twilight occurs when the sun is six degrees below the horizon, either just before sunrise or just after sunset, allowing for enough natural light that one doesn’t require artificial light.  In the spring—like now—this civil twilight isn’t that great when I am trying to get my brain to settle down and get ready for sleep.  There are what’s called “black out” curtains or blinds in the bedrooms here, and I’ve figured out that I can’t shut them right before getting into bed.  I must darken the bedroom at least an hour before bedtime, to let my brain adjust and start making some melatonin.  The blinds don’t make it perfectly dark in the bedroom, so I add an eye mask to block out the little light that sneaks in from the around the edges of the blinds.  It’s been working so far, and I have finally settled into a good sleeping rhythm.  I imagine that when the darker months come I will relish the twilight, eager for as much light as possible.


And it’s not just the amount of light each day that is so different up here.  It’s the quality of the light that’s unique.  It is such a soft light, even in the middle of the day when it is higher in the sky, though being lower on the horizon doesn’t mean that it isn’t intense at times.  When I’m driving to work in the early mornings the sun is like a laser beaming into my eyes, so that even my sunglasses aren’t enough to block out enough rays so that I can see the road ahead of me.  I’ve already noticed how many drivers have their right arm up, palm blocking the sun-rays so they can safely navigate their way.  And despite the temperature here being so cold, compared to places like Reno, the sun makes it very warm!  It’s been explained to me this is because more light hits the surface area of our bodies when the sun is lower in the sky.  The more horizontal sunrays also makes our South facing living room an oven, with all the rays heating up the place more effectively than our fireplace.  There’s no air conditioning in the homes up here, so we have already learned to close all the blinds in the living room so that we can live there.


Even though it has been stressful to be thrown into a totally new place, I don’t mind.  In fact, I love it.  I enjoy learning about Alaska—it’s a daily living science lesson.  



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