The aurora as seen near Churchill, Manitoba.

The town of Churchill has a long history of looking to the skies. The first formal observations took place in the mid-1700s, when the Royal Society commissioned two astronomers to spend a year there.

© Madison Stevens/Polar Bears International

12/22/2020 2:19:25 AM

Celebrating Solstice

By Dave Allcorn, Churchill Field Assistant

Long periods of darkness are normal parts of life for the animals and people that live in the Arctic, in fact, many parts of the Arctic have been in complete darkness for a few weeks already. The farther north you travel, the more exaggerated the darkness becomes. Above latitude 66.5ºN (the Arctic Circle), the sun doesn’t rise on the winter solstice, and in some far-flung communities, the sun won't rise until February!

December 21st is the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. It’s the day of the year with the least amount of sunlight, and it also marks the first day of winter, which has certainly begun here in Churchill, on the wild shores of Hudson Bay. 

This year’s solstice is also host to a relatively rare celestial event that occurs roughly every twenty years. The great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, two giant gas planets, will be visible in the western sky for an hour or so after sunset. From our perspective (on this small, rocky, polar-bear-inhabited planet), Jupiter and Saturn will appear to be next to each other, although, in reality, they are still hundreds of millions of miles apart! Grab some binoculars and look for two bright objects—some of the moons of these gaseous wonders may be visible too.

The town of Churchill has a history of looking to the skies.

In the mid-1700s, the Royal Society (the world’s oldest scientific organization) commissioned two astronomers to spend a year in a trading post in Churchill to observe the Transit of Venus, a celestial event that happens approximately every 120 years. During that particular year in Churchill, many more astronomical observations were made. Two centuries later, in the 1950s, a research rocket-launching facility was constructed in Churchill to take measurements in Earth’s upper atmosphere. The facility also studied the aurora borealis, the haunting, mysterious lights in the sky that swirl and dance during the darker months.

Rocket launching facility outside Churchill, Manitoba.

Photos: Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International

There are also many polar bears in this dark world, just another example of one of the many obstacles the bears face in their icy realm as they hunt seals regardless.

Currently in Churchill, despite the darkness, the aurora may not be visible every night, but festive lights can be seen around the community, with many houses displaying creative arrangements of Christmas decorations. These are the true northern lights at this time of year, as celebrations of family, friends and food unite the townsfolk. It may be cold and dark outside, but the people of Churchill spread light and have very warm hearts!

Photos: Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International

Parting thoughts

I wrote this poem on Nov 12, about the last polar bear we saw heading to the sea ice after Hudson Bay froze:

To the White

It's her eyes.
There are two.
Staring, glaring.

Dark eyes,
Smashing the emptiness.
Killing all emotion…

The cold wind.
Manufactured tears
In a prescribed avoidance.

But I see her
She with claw and gait
Her eyes are watching mine.

We speak in silence
We understand each other
At least for a moment.

With no words
We part ways
She wanders to the white.

Shining, she turns
Our eyes fix once more.
Farewell my friend.

Photo: Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International

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