snowy mountains
History & Traditions, Travel

Mirror Mirror on the Mountain

Norwegians are obsessed with sunlight. They talk about it endlessly and watch and wait in the New Year, for the light to come a little earlier each day heralding the onset of an early spring.

Obsessed?

Quite possibly. Most of us are familiar with the winter blues, associated lack of sunlight and how it can alter our bodily processes, mood, energy and appetite. Some of us might even know how our thyroid gland, melatonin and serotonin levels change in winter, explaining the physiological reason for tiredness and low mood.

According to Daniel Kripke, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, when melatonin strikes a region of the brain called the hypothalamus, this alters the synthesis of another hormone – active thyroid hormone – that regulates all sorts of behaviours and bodily processes.

Bright light – particularly in the early morning appears to reverse these symptoms.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

The winter darkness is harsh in the town of Rjukan, situated in one of Norway’s steepest valleys. More famous for heavy water production in World War II, for half a year, Ryukan is the town where the sun didn’t shine. That is, until something changed.

When the factory workers began to suffer from a lack of sun, Norsk Hydropower constructed a cable car to take them to the top of neighbouring Gaustatoppen, a mountain with a sheer 1,800-metre peak, so that workers could bathe in the sunlight!

Royalty free image

Imagine an employer taking such an action anywhere else in the world?

This was big.

Yet, this wasn’t enough for the town’s people.

I felt it very physically; I didn’t want to be in the shade.

Martin Andersen, Ryukan resident https://www.highbrowmagazine.com/10920-how-town-norway-copes-winter-depression

An idea was floated to use large rotatable mirrors on the northern side of the valley above Rjukan, to collect the sunlight and direct it down over the town.

It seemed crazy.

Martin Andersen thought differently.

He applied for and obtained a grant to develop a mirror that turns with the Sun while continually reflecting light into Rjukan town square.

Sunlight reflects off the three giant mirrors.
Photograph: The Guardian

Whilst only directing light into the town, for a maximum of two hours, in the darkest month of January, it has been well received by residents and Ryukan has a new tourist attraction.

Rjukan's market square basks in the light beamed down by the three mirrors.

“It’s the sun!” grins Ingrid Sparbo, disbelievingly, lifting her face to the light and closing her eyes against the glare. A retired secretary, Sparbo has lived all her life in Rjukan and says people “do sort of get used to the shade. You end up not thinking about it, really. But this … This is so warming. Not just physically, but mentally. It’s mentally warming.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/06/rjukan-sun-norway-town-mirrors

Overcoming Depression without the Sun

Tromso lies 400km north of the Arctic Circle. Many Norwegians take extra Vitamin D tablets but some Northern dwellers seem to have an edge without the need for tablets.

Winter in Tromso is dark – the Sun doesn’t even rise above the horizon between 21 November and 21 January. Yet strangely, despite its high latitude, studies have found no difference between rates of mental distress in winter and summer. One suggestion is that this apparent resistance to winter depression is genetic. Iceland similarly seems to buck the trend for SAD: it has a reported prevalence of 3.8%, which is lower than that of many countries farther south. And among Canadians of Icelandic descent living in the Canadian province Manitoba, the prevalence of SAD is approximately half that of non-Icelandic Canadians living in the same place.

“It sounds dismissively simple, but a more positive attitude really might help to ward off the winter blues.”

A Stanford University Researcher found that the farther north they went, the more positive people’s mindsets towards winter were. People there might rephrasing attitudes like, ‘I hate winter’ to ‘I prefer summer to winter’, or ‘I can’t do anything in winter’ to ‘It’s harder for me to do things in winter, but if I plan and put in the effort I can’.

In this regard, a person feels they exert some control over how they respond to the colder weather.

Have you ever suffered with the winter blues? What helped you overcome it?

Is the winter blues exacerbated by Covid-related lockdowns?

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89 thoughts on “Mirror Mirror on the Mountain”

  1. Wealth of information Amanda.
    As an individual from a hot climate I love Norwegian weather.
    It’s quite natural.
    For locals it’s a nightmare.
    Reminds me of “grass is always greener in the otherside’
    Norwegians are a great community and Innovative too.
    Very kind and helpful people.
    Thank you

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I love Norway and the Norwegians and likewise can appreciate the beautiful winters, rain and cooler weather. When you don’t have it for years and years, the grass is always greener on the other side.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooo. I love the adaptation of that saying in your comment. Because it is true. One can always wish for things but even in situations not so ideal, we can improve things to some extent by our attitudes and thoughts and the way we interpret and perceive things.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Compassionate? Yes I think so. They were definitely thinking of the whole community when they advocated for the installation of the mirrors.
      You visited Ryukan in Summer? Is that right, Nicole?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amanda, I can only imagine. Sunlight is so rejuvenating, even just watching its impact through the window brings awe. I have always felt that rainy Seattle has more per capita coffee shops because of the rainy climate. Keith

    Liked by 3 people

    1. People do drink more coffee and hot chocolate on cooler days Keith. It is fact. I do too! (Not coffee though). The Sun is a giver of our life, but I seem genetically unable to cope with the strength of it here. I have always felt the glare is intense. I notice it so strongly when I return from overseas. Australia is so intensely bright it hurts my eyes for the first day or so…. I grab for the sunglasses. Having said that, I still appreciate the sunrise and sunsets, over the water. Who couldn’t help but be in awe of that, every single time?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes sunlight is rejuvenating but you can also have too much of it, which is our problem here in Australia. If you are a winter person like me, it is not a lot of fun to endure a five to six month long summer period.

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  3. In the past, I have felt less myself during the Winter months. A little over a year ago I had the windows in the room where I spend the most hours during the day. The windows facing the sunrise, are not covered which allow more light into the room and that has made an amazing difference.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That is very interesting, Rebecca. So you notice a substantial difference. I am in Australia, so we tend to have trees shading our houses to keep the sun out. Yet in the nursing homes, the aged can still suffer with Vitamin D deficiency. Was the change you noticed related to your mood, energy levels or both, may I ask?

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  4. Quite a solution! Very innovative. In Maine, the dark comes at 4 p.m. in December, and we eagerly await the lengthening of the days. However, Clif and I don’t get the winter blues. We love this cold time of coziness and rest.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It is great to hear that you don’t suffer with the winter blues, Laurie. Do you do anything actively to avoid it, or is it perhaps as some suggest, a certain attitude to the darkness? (I love it myself!)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t like the short days of winter, I’m always glad when they start to lengthen. A friend of mine is currently living and working in Tromso. He is from the south of Norway so used to hard winters but not that hard and dark. However he seems to be fine with the conditions there – he’s a very equitable guy and not much seems to bother him!

    We visited Tromso once in a February (Northern Lights trip) and I quite liked the weird blueish light but I wouldn’t want to live there. We were there the day the sun first rose above the horizon after months of no sun at all, and there was a great atmosphere in the town with everyone out on the streets to welcome it 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh it can be such a festive time for the northerners can’t it? That must have been a special experience for you. I know what you mean about the blueish light. From trips I took to Iceland and Norway. It is such a delicate, almost breakable duck egg blue on the horizon. To me, that was so magical. I loved it.
      Your friend sounds like he has adapted well to Tromso. Did he come from your area?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a fascinating post, Amanda. I learned a great deal. So many gems of truth — and awesome inspiration.
    In answer to your final question, I give a resounding yes.
    Fortunately for many of us, Spring (and more sunlight) is near (if not already here)!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I supposed that Covid made things worse, Donna and it is not surprising. That daily dose of the weak sun of a dark winter must be sorely needed when you are surrounded by four internal walls all day.
      Are sun lamps popular?

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  7. I’m from England and moved to Washington State, both places where cold, grey, rainy days are the norm in winter. It never bothered me until, at some point, I just found myself getting depressed by the relentless grey skies. It was one factor in moving to Hawaii. Ironically, a friend of mine has SAD and makes a point of getting away to somewhere sunny each winter. He came here for two weeks one February and the skies were grey every day but one. I felt so bad for him.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I had a friend who went to live in England for some years and it was the rainy cold days that finished it for her and she returned to Australia, even though she loved England. Continual rain and greyness might be worse than snow and whiteness perhaps? For me, I don’t mind either but it is a rare phenomenon here. Having said that it does rain for a week on end, only lightly and never all day. We are actually having a wettish summer this year. The grass is green. Just as well after the awful fires from last year. But yes, sad when one’s holidays are marred by continual rain. Tropical rain can be relenting. That is hard to take if you are not used to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a wonderful story. It’s one which I’d attribute to comic books rather than real life.
    Winter blues is definitely something. Although I was used to it, I remember being quite depressed when I go to work in the dark and come home again at dark, just because of the shortened days. It’s not so much Winter tho, as there’s nothing better than a bright crisp day in winter when the sun’s out and everything sparkles.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Those winter days you desribe where everything sparkles are just blissful and a special gift of nature. Yet snowflakes falling are equally entrancing to me, Sandy. But you know that already. I can understand how difficult it is to maintain a cheery spirit when you feel that you are in darkness all day. My own son felt this when he lived in Norway. To get to school in the dark and come home in the dark was hard for him. Me, I would find it novel and fun.
      But the mirror in Ryukan is real, even though it is more of a tourist attraction now than an effective strategy.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Awesome post! I read about the allied sabotage of the heavy water plant near Vermork in “The Winter Fortress” by Neal Bascomb. Amazing story. The Vermork museum is in Rjukan, I think. Anyway, love the innovative thinking that led to the mirrors. Thanks, Amanda!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes I believe the museum is there and I have seen the building on that site, Martin. A lovely town by the way, in a picturesque place. But then all of Norway is spectacular. Have you been?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Well it is more of a tourist attraction than adequately addressing the winter blues of an entire town, M-R. For that, you would need a whole acre or more of mirrors. Still, if you were in desparate need of sunlight, you would go and sit in the town square each day for two hours. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. That would make a difference Ineke. I used to live with the shade of a high house next to me. When I moved I made sure light and aspect were a priority.

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  10. I think Vermont needs some of those mirrors. I’ve noticed that the people who embrace the winter weather by finding an outside activity are probably a little less likely to suffer from the winter depression. Sunlight might be part of it, of course, but just getting that fresh air and exercise in a joyful manner is probably a bigger contributor.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You would need many fields of mirrors for a whole state, Dorothy! But to have a few, as the relatively small town of Rjukan has, throwing sunlight on the town square would be fun. From what you said, it sounds like it is a combination of being fitter, moving more AS WELL AS sunlight that makes the difference to many in your part of the world. All ways to keep the mind and body active and healthy.
      Do you tend to cook more hearty dishes in winter? Higher in protein or good fats?

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      1. Oh yes! In the winter I make long-simmered stews and soups. Potatoes and other root veggies that stick to your ribs are more often on the plate. My husband really craves carbs in the winter, so I do try to not go overboard, but we definitely have more fat in the diet in winter. I think that is why as the weather warms, all I crave is greens, which is funny because I include lots of greens all year!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. So there is a definite difference in your body’s preferences with the seasons. I don’t think we notice that as much here. But soups and casseroles are on the menu in winter, whereas summer is too hot to think of them. Salads make their presence felt then. Unfortunately my husband refuses and hates cold meats so that limits our salad menus.
          I like the saying,”stick to your ribs.”

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  11. What a great story and what great employers to try to make their employees feel better. My husband suffered badly from winter blues until we retired early and then spent our winters in sunnier climes. It doesn’t worry me at all, the darker winters, but of course, we have nothing like the Norwegian ones you describe so well. My sister lives in Sweden and finds, not so much the long dark months of winter depressing, but the sheer whiteness of everything!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So your sister finds the whiteness depressing. That is interesting as I have heard that most of the Scandinavians like the snow coming as it lightens up the dark days. But then we are all individuals and react differently. I am lucky to live in a warm country, yet ironically I feel more suited to a cold climate and you are also fortunate not to suffer any ill-effects of the winter blues. Is there anything specifically you do to counteract the effects of winter, Mari?

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  12. How wonderful that someone thought of an idea to get sunlight to a whole town. I’m sure it’s doing them a world of good. I do worry about all the mirrors on buildings, even the ones in large cities everywhere will make a difference in overall planet temps. I’m not a fan of mirrored building because the sunlight bouncing off can hurt the eyes. I’m a fan of winter as like you, sunlight can be a bit intense. I love the daylight hours but tend to avoid the sun. I turn on all the lights in winter and get cozy. I have plenty to do and cold and rainy means I have not work calling me out there. Takes some pressure off. Summer is my least favorite season. I just can’t handle the heat. My sister has complained all week that I keep my house too cold for her in winter. I suggest more or warmer clothes but she snubs the idea. I keep warm quilts on every chair for everyone to use. Not good enough. I’m not the hostess I once was. ;(

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah. I have an Icelandic friend whose family accused her of the same thing. Not having the heating up high enough. Mind you, some families in Scandinavia have it up so high it is stuffy, and that is far worse than feeling a little chilled.
      You can always get warm when you are cold by moving about, but it surely is harder to cool down if it is boiling outside.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I had just read about Rjukan yesterday! I find it bizarre that the founders decided to set up camp in such a place. I guess there must be something else that made it attractive or perhaps was the only place to build that wasn’t on a mountain top. Interesting fix though.
    I guess we are super lucky in the sense that our winter days still feature a lovely blue sky and sun. I imagine it can be especially hard when it’s grey more times than not. I guess it’s about making the most of it. I’ve always admired the nordic winters and how making the inside of homes cosy is a way to compact the conditions outside. Outdoor fairy lights and activities for the communities to draw people outside can still make winters enjoyable. The nights and days are getting cooler here, so excited for winter!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The founders of Rjukan picked the spot because the nearby falls assisted with the hydro production. That same company started making hydrogen via water electrolysis in Rjukan. The by product of which was heavy water. And we all know what role that played in WWII.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Amanda. Long time no see. Feels great to return to your blog 🙂
    What a brilliant idea! I am sure the residents appreciate it. I lived for some years in Finland and the lack of sun really did affect my mental well-being. It’s slightly better weather-wise here in Poland, but I would still love to have some more sun. I do love all four distinct seasons, and it’d be the best if they all came with sunny days 😀 It’s not so much the heat but the light for me. Autumns are the worst here, cold, dark and rainy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hey hey my friend Pooja! Great to hear from you! You make a good point that whilst everyone would like sunny days, it is the light that they cravea and the heat less so.
      I can imagine how you felt the winter blues during your time in Finland.
      I do agree that a long stretch of cold dark and rainy days are not the best weather and right now that is our weather in my part of the world. It is usual to get rain here around Easter but we have had a week of light showers and perhaps another week more! Over the sea New Zealand which receives a lot of rain is on water restrictions due to a lack of rain! The weather is mad at the moment. The rain here is wonderful because it happens so rarely that we have so much for so long and I see green grass everywhere!
      Take care Pooja and hope the sun and light shines for you very soon. Spring must be close.

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    1. Hi Nadine. Welcome to StPA and thanks so much for your comment. I am with you on all the winter sports. I am not a sporty person but I love skiing, and all the fun things you can do in the snow.
      So you feel the lack of light distinctly in the snowy months? Which being Canada, I imagine is quite lengthy?

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