Top of the world they call it. Don’t feel that way. Feels like the bottom. So dark there’s no end. So cold there’s no feel. If I took ten steps into the night, I wouldn’t even know where I’d be when I’d look up. It’s all the same. What do you call a night that never ends?
Words and Photography by Mark Mahaney
Utqiagvik, the northernmost town of Alaska, is known as ground zero for climate change. The arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, so the barrier of ice that once shielded this coastal town from devastating storms is thinning rapidly.
Photographer Mark Mahaney travelled to Utqiagvik originally to document the phenomenon known as the ‘polar night’, in which the hemisphere tilts away from the sun during winter and leaves the town in a period of uninterrupted darkness for two months of the year. But once Mark got there, he found that relentless darkness was only one of the problems faced by the community there. Read on for Mark’s experience of Utqiagvik and the haunting photos he captured of it.
71.2906° N, 156.7886° W
Northernmost town in the United States. 320 miles above the Arctic Circle. The name translates to ‘place where snowy owls are hunted.’ No roads lead in or out. Flat as a board. No plants, no trees, no fresh food aside from what’s hunted: bowhead whale, seal, caribou, walrus, polar bear. Milk is ten bucks a gallon. An avocado, five.
Polar Night. 65 days without the sun. Darkness brings darkness. Crime, substance abuse, and depression spike. Highest suicide rate in the country. Solastalgia is real. Police Department receives calls from disoriented citizens, not knowing the day or the time. Never have I heard snow like this. No moisture to it. Sounds like a shriek under the weight of the foot. And the wind. It’s so there, you forget it’s there. Nearly 40 below. Ten seconds and the bare skin hurts. ‘Three-dog night,’ a bygone arctic metric to define the intensity of temperature. The colder it is, the more dogs are needed around you for warmth to survive the night.
Freezing, but warming. Thinning ice can no longer protect the land from coastal storms. Disappearance of landmass. The town is washing away. This place is no joke. When midnight sun is replaced by polar night, everything’s different. Eyes to the horizon and there’s nothing. And then more nothing, in every direction. Just waiting for the sun to rise above it, so time can exist again.