How To Write About The Arctic – What It’s Like To Live In a Dark, Cold, and Terrifying Place

After having lived above the polar circle for two years now, I figured I could use my powers for good – and write a little something about what it’s like to live in an Arctic environment.

First, some background information: Two years ago I took an opportunity that landed me at 78 degrees north – in Svalbard, one of the most northernmost places in the world, in Arctic Norway. What was supposed to be one year became two, and – well, it’s pretty amazing to live up here and I’ve loved every single moment of it. Now it’s time to go back though, and though it is with a heavy heart I turn my nose back toward mainland Norway, I’m looking forward to being reunited with my wife and getting back to the life I had before.

Of course – as soon as I moved up here I knew I would use this a lot in my writing. The beautiful scenery, the wild and majestic (but also terrifying) environment. It was bound to end up in my writing sooner or later, and I already have plans for several projects that will take place in the desolate, terrifying north. (A few smaller pieces are already written).

But it didn’t strike me until recently that others might benefit from my knowledge of what it’s like to live and exist up here, so I figured I could share some of what’s like to experience biting cold, the total darkness of the polar night, the blinding midnight sun, and not at least, the threat of polar bears.

So whether or not your used to winters filled with snow and ice, or if you’ve never ever seen snow in all your life before, here’s a little about what it’s like to live in the Arctic:

This is what it looks like much of the time – jagged mountains covered with snow.

Let’s start with some basics: seasons. Seasons aren’t the same up here, and we usually only speak of two. Winter and summer. Snow and mud. Dry and wet. And they are vastly different.

The winter is cold, dark and dry. A desert of snow – because after the initial snowfall (just when the temperature drops below zero), there’s not that much precipitation – and there are no trees. Everything as far as you can see is white, frozen, and dark. The summer is wet, not because it rains, but because the snow that has accumulated and all glaciers that have been growing large throughout the winter starts melting. Suddenly, every valley, hillside, and slope is full of rivers and streams.

Because of this, the landscape changes drastically from one season to the other. In the winter, traveling along the shores become easier – by land. You can cross frozen rivers or walk on drift ice and suddenly every harbor is easily accessible from land. Walking through the mountains on the other hand is difficult and potentially very dangerous because of the snow and avalanche danger. But then again, with a sled and a pack of dogs you can get far, fast.

In the summer it’s easier to travel inland – if you can find ways to wade through or walk around rivers. But it’s slow going compared to flying over the snow with a sled. And you can easily travel along the coast by boat, getting to places that might have been too far away and inaccessible in the winter – as long as you can find a safe harbor to land in which is often difficult due to steep cliffs.

It’s strange to live in a place that changes so much throughout the year and experience how it forces you to think about the landscape in different ways.

This was taken in the early summer, just when everything melts.

Here’s a weird thing that I’ve missed – there aren’t a lot of smells. Oh how I miss the smell of traffic, trees, flowers, and the country side (read: manure – I grew up on a farm).

There are no trees this far north, and hardly any vegetation at all. Because of that, and the very dry air, there are basically no smells. In the summer you can smell the ocean (barely), and the occasional wildlife (walruses smell absolutely horrendous), but in the winter, nothing.

It doesn’t really affect your way of life up here in any major way, but it makes you realize when you suddenly smell a fire or a meal and remember how you’ve missed it.

Not a single tree in sight.

It’s cold. Of course it’s cold in the Arctic, but maybe not as cold as you’d think. Since it’s surrounded by the ocean and currents bring warm air up here, it can actually be much colder much farther south, if you’re inland between some proper mountains. I think the coldest I ever experienced was -40 (that’s the same in Celcius and Fahrenheit, by the way) and that was even including wind chills.

But that’s the thing, it’s the wind that makes it cold. It’s the wind that numbs you to the bone. Whether it’s -10 or -30 hardly matters if there’s no wind. You wrap up so tight and warm anyway, that you hardly notice. A couple of layers of wool, a good scarf and a big hat, and maybe a set of thin + thick gloves and you’re fine. But once you get a good wind blowing, tearing through your layers and into every crevice in your jacket and hood and gloves, that’s when you start feeling it. I’ve been frozen blue at much warmer temperatures than I’d normally struggle with, just because of the wind.

Frost smoke over the fjord in the early hours.

It’s dark. Around one fourth of the year is pitch black – polar night.

I was very excited to see how I would handle it, but I wasn’t worried, because I enjoy the darkness. A lot of people hear about it though and wonder, “How the hell you cope? How you keep from getting depressed and how you survive in general?”

The thing is, darkness isn’t very dark when there’s nothing to compare it to. Without the promise of light every 12 hours, you kind of just… forget. Actually, I found it incredibly calming and soothing. Constant darkness enveloping you all the time makes you feel safe in a way. I find the constant rotation of night and day (you know, the normal 12-hour kind) to be much more stressful.

Also, with the moon, the snow, and the northern lights, it’s not actually as dark as you think.

This was the most extraordinary northern lights I’ve ever seen.

It’s bright. The midnight sun on the other hand, is super annoying. That’s the fourth of the year at the height of summer, when the sun just revolves in a constant circle around the sky. It NEVER goes away.

I actually moved to the Arctic right after this period had started, and it was exciting for about two days. After that it was just annoying and exhausting. Because no matter how much you try to block it out and stick to your routines, and remind yourself to go to bed, you kind of never get tired. Your body doesn’t understand what’s happening, and to me it felt like I was firing on all pistons all the time. Of course you get exhausted and tired eventually, but I never felt like I managed to adapt.

It does allow you to work around the clock though, to travel day and night, and it can be fun to sit outside and lose track of time. Fun, but exhausting.

If I recall correctly, this would have been taken around 11 pm or so.

It’s dangerous. There’s a lot of things dangerous things up here, and yes, the most obvious thing is the polar bear. I’ve encountered a few, under safe circumstances, and they are absolutely huge and scary though they mostly stick with seal as their main protein source.

Nature and the environment is much more likely to kill you. If the vast distances, a fall or a tumble down a rocky hillside—broken bones included—or the ocean, a lake, or a river doesn’t kill you during the summer, then an avalanche, the cold, or the snow will probably do it in the winter. Because damn, the weather can turn on a dime up here, and if you get caught in a whiteout your chances get real slim real fast.

These days we have navigation systems and devices that can help us if we get lost, but if you don’t, you’re basically trapped. Doesn’t matter if you knew where you were heading, if you had a course, if you could see that nearby mountain top just two minutes ago. When the winds start kicking up the snow, you’ll be walking around blind in a matter of seconds. And then the freezing cold winds, a potential avalanche, an unseen crack in a glacier, or a sneaky bear suddenly become much more dangerous.

Winds suddenly whipped up as I walked through town.

Oh, and another fun one. It’s quite noisy. Sure, there are no smells but there are a lot of sounds. From the constant twittering of birds – with the midnight sun burning constantly they seem to never go to sleep – to the slushing of oceans and rivers, the crunch of gravel or snow, and the cracking and popping of ice and glaciers, everything here seems to be making some noise or other, all the time.

And if you’re not hearing one or all of these noises, it’s probably just because the winds are whipping you about the ears.

All in all, it’s probably the most wonderful place on Earth. Beautiful might be a stretch, because when it’s not covered in snow it’s just heaps of rock and dust everywhere, with basically no vegetation. But then you have the reindeer, the foxes, the whales, the walruses, and the immense amount of birds, and they just make this place magical. I met a guy who’d lived here for a few years, and we stood at this ridge look out over a range of mountains at the height of summer. “No, it’s not beautiful,” he said. “But it’s majestic.”

A lonely reindeer, walking across the tundra.

So if you’re planning a historical fiction set at the height of the Arctic exploration, or if you’re writing a grim fantasy novel set in a cold and desolate northern continent, here’s a brief summary: It’s varied. Bright and dark, wet and dry, cold and… slightly less cold. It’s vast. Distances are huge, and often difficult to traverse. If the snow, ice, and glaciers don’t get in your way, then rocks, rivers, and mountains will.

And it’s dangerous. If the wildlife doesn’t kill you, then the environment will. If even that fails, then disease (scurvy was a widespread problem up here for a while) or starvation might do the trick. If nothing else – people are always the nastiest monsters, especially when there’s new lands and riches to claim.

But it’s a great place – one I am struggling to leave behind, but one which leaves me with loads of amazing memories. If you ever have the chance to experience the north, I highly recommend it.

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