LONGYEARBYEN, Norway This week, this remote Arctic settlement which bills itself as the northernmost town in the world is buzzing with excitement and expectation. It is not because a polar bear was spotted in the adjacent valley last week. (It was deemed well fed, and officials decided to let it lumber on toward the coast instead of shooting it as a matter of public safety.)
The 2,000 inhabitants of Longyearbyen, on an island 600 miles from the North Pole, are eagerly awaiting another visitor, whose arrival is just around the corner. From experience, they know this guest will warm the air and make the town's now filmy colors come alive the white of the snow; the deep blue of the water; the red, yellow and green of the wooden homes, banks, restaurants, schools and the post office.
On March 8, the sun will rise again in Longyearbyen, the first time since October. While most of the world takes light and shadows for granted, for residents here, after months of perpetual darkness, the prospect of sunlight is a very big deal.
Elke Morgner and Allison Bailey, two graduate students at the research institute here, were hacking though ice six miles outside of Longyearbyen this week to take measurements from the underlying tundra when they saw a sliver of sunlight peek around a mountain. Despite temperatures of 4 below (-40 with wind chill), they put down their tools and stared.
As they worked, the shaft of light grew to fill a large swath of the valley. On their way home, they made a beeline with their snowmobiles for the light. And there it was, between two mountains: the sun.
"Look at it!" they shouted in unison. "Look at it!" The scientists hugged, did little jigs in the snow, and then stood motionless, awestruck. Back on campus in town, advance reports about the solar spotting filtered in, and other students headed off on snowmobiles to check it out.
"How did it look?" a student asked, as others clustered around a returnee peeling off his outer clothes in the lobby of the institute, University Studies in Svalbard, named for the island. "Beautiful," he said. Then he thought for a moment and added, "Bright!"
Longyearbyen, originally a coal mining town named for the American who founded it a century ago, is in total darkness from mid-November through January. During the first part of November and in February, when the sun is well below the horizon, daytime in Longyearbyen is only indirect light, a brief period of bluish twilight.
But now, with the sun climbing closer to the horizon, each day is 20 minutes longer than the day before, and noticeably brighter. On March 8, direct sunlight, with shadows and warmth, will arrive, starting with an actual sunrise.
For a few weeks after that, residents will enjoy the diurnal alternation of light and darkness that is usual elsewhere. By the end of March, the transformation will be complete: From April through September, there will be perpetual day in this town, now home to the university and a thriving tourist industry, as well as miners.
The arrival of daylight is like a yearly rebirth, transforming lives and routines. While people do not actually hibernate, residents say they tire easily in the dark winter. Graduate students take naps at their desks.
Now, the wheels are turning again. Inger Marie Hegvik, who has worked at the airport for 15 years, said she sleeps two to three hours more in the dark months, and that her energy has risen dramatically in recent days.
"It is excellent," she said, shopping for wine at the Coop, a local store. "Everything becomes easier." To celebrate the sun's arrival, her office has planned a party at a mountain cabin this weekend. At night last week, men in the Kroa pub and restaurant were singing, unusual for them.
On Friday, at the Royal Kindergarten (one of three preschools here), a dozen or so children who have lived in darkness for the winter were busily painting and cutting out paper suns that are now affixed to the school's snowy windows.
They are learning a song for a festival that will bring together all the town's students next week: "The sun is good. The sun is great. The sun is warm. It browns the body. The sun shines every morning on me." The day the sun arrives is a public holiday.
Suddenly, people will be driving their cars and scooters in light rather than darkness. They can see their kids when they run on ahead. They can hike up the glacier.
The return of the sun also means the return of warmth to this frigid land, although that concept is relative. Summer temperatures average only 43 degrees. The record high is 64.
But for many longtime inhabitants there is a sense of regret this time of year, as well. Like a rainy weekend, the perpetual night in Longyearbyen's winter can be a time of contemplation.
"Winter is so nice, you have all these things you want to do," said Birgit Brekken, who moved here as a nurse 30 years ago and now works in a boutique that is getting its first trickle of tourists. "You write long letters instead of making a phone call. It's a time when you can slow down and read."
Now, those unfinished projects will have to wait until next year, she said. "Suddenly it is late February, and the sun is coming back, and you have to get busy again."