Northern Lights

The elusive Scandinavian sunlight is a constant source of great happiness, deep frustration, and permanent longing for the inhabitants of the north.

Oh, those Nordic midsummer nights.

To most Scandinavians the word ‘midsummer’ evokes memories of otherworldly bright nights, togetherness, youth, lush landscapes of green and yellow fields, and a beautiful, heavy scent of summer in the air. A near-magical time of year, where both the sun and the people refuse to go to bed, staying up all night outdoors, feeling giddy and free and so in love with life and light that when autumn sets in, the slow reduction of daylight hours can feel like a welcome invitation to finally catch up on some sleep. That is, until the light suddenly takes on a harsh, white glow and nearly disappears from sight for the next four agonizing months.

The Nordic light, with its fascinating variations of colour and intensity, has the power to both inspire and sadden and can sometimes change so brutally fast that those who live in the north have the feeling of someone turning off a light switch in their very hearts. One minute the sea is a sparkling deep blue, the next an ocean of vast greys, while hills and mountains are transformed from undulating shapes bathed in warm orange tones to stone cold rock and icy white plains.

“The daylight in Nordic countries is significantly different from anywhere else. The reasons are a very low mean solar angle during the year, long periods of twilight, and a high frequency of overcast skies. Those geographical and climatic facts have a strong impact on the luminance level on the ground, the colour of daylight, and the modelling of landscape and peoples,” explains Barbara Szybinska Matusiak, professor at the Light & Colour Group at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology and author of the book Nordic Light and Colour.

Seeing as the light in the Nordic regions thus varies more than elsewhere on the planet, it also continues to influence how we Scandinavians perceive and work with architecture and art. Not to mention the effects the light has on both our physical and psychological wellbeing; a whopping 9 % of all Scandinavians suffer from winter depressions, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, and 25 % experience so-called winter fatigue syndrome. No wonder Northerners still feel the need to celebrate midsummer with song, dance, and hedonistic bonfires to welcome back the light, as if it were an actual living, much-loved presence among us.

A beautiful summer sunset is of course possible anywhere on the planet. But, says Barbara Szybinska Matusiak, delving into the technicalities of nature, the sunset act itself plays out at very different speeds in different places and on different days.

“In the Northern Hemisphere, the difference in the sun’s pace, as observed on the sky, is most clear during the summer. In the far north the sun seems to move slowly, whereas it moves most rapidly close to Equator. On the 21 June, it takes 29 minutes for the sun to move from the 5° elevation angle to 0° (horizon) in Cairo, while in Oslo it takes 1 hour and 7 minutes. Additionally the direction of the sun’s movement is much more horizontal in Oslo,” explains Barbara Szybinska Matusiak.

Continue reading in Oak volume Two