The Very Dark and Very Light Sides of Life in Iceland and Alaska

PLAY OF THE LAND

In Reykjavik, the most northerly capital in Europe, the winters are long and dark. The summers are warm and bright, quite bright.

In midwinter, there is 5 hours of daylight. In the summers, from mid-May to mid-August, the sun sets for 3 hours a day (although it doesn’t get completely dark during those times).

Winters for Icelanders can come at the expense of their sleep and their melatonin, a natural hormone generated by the body’s pineal gland that regulates the body’s internal clock.  

Winters for Icelanders can come at the expense of their sleep and their melatonin…

“In winter, (Icelanders) don’t see the morning light until 11 a.m., when they’re probably in the office to look out the window. Then, when they leave for the day, it’s dark again. So they don’t have enough melatonin, which can cause sleep difficulties,” says Erla Björnsdóttir, a Reykjavic-based psychologist, in a 2015 interview with The Reykjavik Grapevine. With this darkness can come a bad case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a form of depression that is related to changes in seasons.

But things aren’t too “sad” for the 200,000 Icelanders living in Reykjavik. Workers get 24 days of paid leave, in addition to 13 public holidays. It has become a health-and-wellness destination. Natural wonders like the Northern Lights and thermal pools, like the famed Blue Lagoon, to keep residents and tourists alike. For a country and a city that have experienced a bounce-back from its previous economic troubles, life in the long, cold dark is tolerable, even enjoyable.

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Research has shown little correlation between subarctic winters and its impact on mental distress.

Post-collapse Recovery and Renaissance

The collapse of the global economy in 2008 hit Iceland hard. Three of the country’s big cross-border banks imploded. The krone, Iceland’s currency, depreciated in value. Inflation rose, as did interest rates.

Then capital controls were put in place, preventing capital from leaving the country. Taxes were raised. In a matter of 8 years, things started to turn around for Iceland, economically speaking. In 2016, the GDP rose by 7.2 percent, as did tourism — an estimated 1.7 million tourists visited the country in 2016, a seismic increase from the 488,600 tourists who visited the country in 2010.

Life for Icelanders improved, although the cost of living in Reykjavik is very high—it ranks 3rd out of 340 in the Expatistan Cost of Living Index’s global ranking.

Dealing with the long hours in the cold means plenty of vitamin D supplements, fish oil and light therapy. The tradeoff for these long winters, writes Kaelene Spence, author of the blog Unlocking Kiki.

“I may wish that Iceland didn’t have as long of winters, but I can complain?!  I get to live in one of the safest countries in the world! A place that values a work/life balance and children are safe to walk to,” writes Spence. “While this cold island may be covered in snow for more months than I would like, the landscapes that I get to see, they still take my breath away,” she adds.

Research has shown little correlation between subarctic winters and its impact on mental distress (“the prevalence of self-reported was surprisingly low in winter consider the lack of daylight,” per a 1998 report).

Most taxi drivers work six to eight hours in winter but 15 in summer.

In 2016, Reykjavik launched a pilot program of a reduced workweek, from 40 hours to 35 hours, following reports that Icelanders worked longer hours than Norwegian, Dutch and German workers (it was unclear if Iceland’s winters or summers factored into this program). The pilot program also showed that employees were more satisfied at work, took fewer sick days, and enjoyed a greater level of well-being, per The Reykjavik Grapevine. 

In a 2004 Guardian article on Iceland, among the suggested survival tips in Iceland includes romance, outdoor hot tubs, and work.

“Work harder. Or work less. The word from Iceland is you should lie in longer and work shorter hours in winter. Some might call it hibernation. Most taxi drivers work six to eight hours in winter but 15 in summer,” writes Patrick Barkham in The Guardian.

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To cope with sleeping during normal sleep-time hours, Alaskans turn to blackout curtains and sunglasses to prevent the light from affecting their natural circadian rhythm.

Withstanding Sunny Summers

Conversely, living during a season where there is little darkness during nighttime can also be a challenge. In Barrow, Alaska, where there is daylight for nearly two months straight, citizens take advantage of the abundant daylight without letting it affect their overall dispositions.

“In 10-plus years in Alaska, not once have I heard an Alaskan say that they don’t like the long days. It is not uncommon to hear a lawnmower running or kids playing outside at 11 p.m.,” said Dr. Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist based in Alaska, in a 2016 interview with Weather.com.

To cope with sleeping during normal sleep-time hours, Alaskans turn to blackout curtains and sunglasses to prevent the light from affecting their natural circadian rhythm

Much like in Reykjavik, there is plenty of natural beauty to make these extreme changes in light—and the attendant impact on one’s sleep—worth it.

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