Dark winters are a scary yet relatively normal phenomenon that Alaskan citizens struggle with. Although long and harsh winters are cast members’ main enemy in “Life Below Zero,” this situation takes things to a different level. The documentary TV series follows the daily and seasonal activities of hunters and gatherers living in Alaskan cities or nearby camps and homesteads. Sue Aikens, one of the prominent cast members and a member of the Alaskan bush people living on remote homesteads, explained the condition in one episode of season 21.
They fight through the freeze, the dark winter, the break-up, and the thaw. Then they do it all again.
However, dark winters have plagued Alaska with varying duration for centuries, and other cast members Chip and Agnes Hailstone, Andy Bassich, Jessie Holmes and Ricko DeWilde have shared their way of dealing with them. The term escaped many viewers because of reduced intensity, span, or lack of emphasis. Some fans remember that the name of season three’s 12th episode, aired on 3 July 2014, was “Dark Winter’s End,” meaning that the producers subtly hinted at the difference compared to a regular winter. In that case, the cast members hunted, collected supplies, built shelter, and battled the rough weather
However, they were extra careful while setting traps, riding their dog sled, watching for predators such as wolves and bears, and predicting a snowstorm. Besides making things hard to spot for several weeks, the near-eternal night drastically reduces the temperatures. Although the region and the type of winter dictate the difference, prolonged night during the winter can reduce average temperatures by roughly 45 Fahrenheit or 7 Celsius, reaching -30 Fahrenheit or -35 Celsius during December and January, hence the show’s name. Here’s what dark winter is and how it affects Alaskan residents.
Dark winter is natural
Although the show adds a bit of drama, most of the situations in “Life Below Zero” seem genuine or are an accurate recreation. However, dark winter isn’t made up or exaggerated, although some viewers assume so because of a popular myth. Many people wrongly assume that Alaska, because it sits so close to the North Pole, stays in pitch-black darkness six months of the year. However, the reality is that the duration of the dark days depends on the place in Alaska, and is rarely in the dark for more than a month.
Northernmost areas, such as Fairbanks, usually have one to two months of darkness yearly. Although no definition exists, a period of two or more months without visible sunrise can be considered a dark winter. Residents of the Utqiagvik city, formerly Barrow, get about 50 to 70 days of darkness yearly, typically between November and January. Very few cast members live nearby, so many viewers don’t know what surviving that period requires.
Dangers and balance
During the winter solstice in Alaska, the shortest day of the year, the sun may rise between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and set five to six hours later. Thus, almost all Alaska residents experience early nightfall and barely see or feel the effects of the sun, and most cities become covered in darkness from between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. during winter. The most immediate impact is the bone-chilling cold. According to the National Weather Service, the sun will not offer thermal heating if the maximum solar noon sun’s angle is 5 degrees or less above the horizon. Therefore, a month or more of near-constant darkness mandates a consistent heat source, and reduces the chances of obtaining resources from farming and hunting wildlife.
Low visibility dramatically boosts the risk of injury, as the residents must use frozen rivers as highways and dodge obstacles, predators, and fellow Alaskans. Mental health suffers as well. For instance, photographer Mark Mahaney interviewed the residents, police, and some natives, who told him that ‘Alaska is an energetically heavy place during winter; the crime spikes, different abuse goes up, and random calls from citizens who feel depressed, disoriented, and terrified begin to come in.’
People also report that early evenings feel like midnight, and the reflection of street lights on the snow in constant darkness negatively affects their mood. Unsurprisingly, Alaskan residents must boost their vitamin D intake through food or supplements. Another solution for a dark winter is light therapy lamps, which reportedly boost mood and return a sense of average daylight for a bit.
Summers and bright and hot
Spring and fall resemble regular seasons worldwide, but the residents report feeling that the two seasons only last a few weeks. Therefore, the 49th state of the US would have fewer residents if the place was miserable year-round. Getting through such a harsh, dark winter feels rewarding because the sun rarely sets during summer, meaning that they can stay active without extra light close to midnight. For example, the sun may rise at 4 a.m. and set at midnight, but it barely slips below the horizon, six to 18 degrees, for a few hours before it rises again. When the sun is six degrees below the horizon, the civil twilight allows people to see the brightest planets and stars and the horizon if the weather is mild.
Nautical twilight, when the sun is between six and 12 degrees below, allows people to see the horizon, but outdoor activities might need some artificial lighting. Astronomical twilight, when the sun is between 18 and 12 degrees below the horizon, lets Alaskans see some stars and planets but not the horizon. Outdoor activities usually mandate extra lighting in that case. Alaskans usually go mushing (dog sledding), skiing, snow machining, or snowshoeing in the summer to compensate for the winter.
However, that presents another problem; most Alaskan residents require blackout curtains and sleeping masks to keep their rooms dark. Alaskan summers are also unexpectedly hot. Although temperatures as high as 70 to 80 Fahrenheit or 21 to 27 Celsius don’t seem so terrible, constant direct sunlight can be relentless, raising indoor temperatures. Thus, Alaskans might need to keep windows open, curtains removed, and fans blasting, resulting in poor quality sleep.
Dark winter in season 19
Many viewers rarely notice the term ‘dark winter’, because not all cast members struggle with it. Additionally, they must be ready for the winter regardless, reducing the need to stress that it is dark. On that note, the first example of a direct explanation of the dark winter dates to season 19, filmed during the winter in 2022. The descriptions for the first few episodes mention that the ‘Alaskans are seeking out vital resources amid a deep freeze in the heart of dark winter and are working to secure all loose ends as the unforgiving dark winter tightens its grip.’ However, the season focused on survival rather than the duration of darkness.
Blog posts and weather reports made up for that by clarifying that 30 days with little to no sunlight is reserved for the Northern Interior Alaska region. Its perhaps most popular destination, Fairbanks, experienced about 30 days of almost total nights in late 2021 and early 2022. In contrast, Utqiagvik or Barrow, only accessible by dog sleds, helicopters or planes, had 65 days of darkness before the first sunrise on 24 January 2023 and had roughly 10 to 25 extra sunny minutes a day afterwards. Things improved in mid-March because the daylight lasted about 12 hours, restoring the balance. As the summer approached, the Alaskan residents had eternal twilight until November.
Season 20 provided a contrast
The 20th season started during the rare but welcome arctic spring and showed cast members scouring for resources, traversing the plains to place traps and hunt, and some even began farming. Sue was one of those, as she tried to start a tundra garden, upgrade her Kavik River Camp homestead close to the northernmost section of Alaska, and complete other projects. Things worsened as the brief autumn approached, and the Alaskans stated that they must ‘prepare for seasonal shocks and push into the dangerous unknown to endure the upcoming winter’s fury.’ It was a reminder that the residents must be ready for the worst-case scenario, regardless of where in Alaska they live.
Dark winter returned
The 21st season was a reminder of the events in the 19th, but everybody seemed more stressed this time. The cameras showed cast members struggling to labor through winter’s challenges, some requiring them to rediscover old practices. For instance, Ricko DeWilde and his children worked to preserve their rare Athabaskan culture. Andy Bassich and Denise Becker lost access to their salmon fishery, forcing them to find a new food source. Simultaneously, Jessie Holmes tried his best to recover from his September 2022 injury. Falling debris struck him inside a building in the Golovin community, sending him to a hospital in Anchorage for treatment. He had several sled dogs to care for, so winter threatened his survival chances if he didn’t get back on his feet.
Sue explained the phenomenon
The news that January 2023 would bring another dark winter sparked additional interest in “Life After Zero” and its spin-off, “Life Below Zero: Next Generation,” which premiered in 2020. Sue Aikens was the ideal person to explain the event to the viewers, as she was most affected due to her location and lifestyle. The Brown family was expanding their camp, Andy Bassich and Denise Becker went fishing on the Yukon River, and Cole Sturgis, the newcomer, and Ricko DeWilde were busy teaching their children the necessary survival skills. However, they mostly stuck to known areas with access to plenty of light, and not all lived near Sue.
Sue did the opposite; she started her trustworthy all-terrain vehicle, Big Red, and headed from her Kavik River Camp to the tundra, telling the camera in the car that she had spotted some tracks, which she believed belonged to a herd of caribou or reindeer. Snow covered the windshield, and the overall visibility prevented her from seeing more than a meter in front. She commented that driving on the Alaskan highway, essentially a deeply frozen river, was typical for winters. Sue reiterated that trusting the road was dangerous, but she had no alternative with such poor visibility.
At one point, Sue turned to the camera and asked a rhetorical question, ‘You might ask, why in the heck am I going at night?’ She then clarified that ‘it’s not actually night, but dark nearly all the time on top of Alaska in the middle of the winter, so any hunting, chores, discovery, or farming has to be done under cover of darkness.’ She couldn’t have known that the darkness would last over 60 days, but explained the conditions of surviving a dark winter’s day.