Scientists Once Set Off To The Top Of The World And Turned Their Lights Off. This Is What They Saw

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockFeb 1 2021, 13:01 UTC
Hjelmer Hanssen

The Helmer Hanssen during a polar night cruise. Image courtesy of Michael O. Snyder

On June 24, 1893, the Norwegian polar explorer and scientist Fridtjof Nansen set off to explore the uncharted land at the very top of the world.


Taking with him 12 men, the plan was to take a specially reinforced ship carrying enough supplies to last five years into the Arctic Ocean and deliberately freeze it into the ice. They would then sit there and let the currents do their work, seeing where the ice would take them. 

When Nansen first talked about the plan, other polar explorers called it "an illogical scheme of self-destruction," but he came back with a trove of previously unknown information from the Arctic Ocean, from temperatures and salinity to currents – revolutionary for a world for whom the top of the planet was nothing but a mystery.

There aren't many opportunities to explore the truly great unknown today, where the "here be dragons" portion of maps have all been filled in with more sensible descriptions like "here be a field". However, there are some people who do get to carry out this kind of exploration, they just have to do it in the dark.

In the winter of 2010, a team on the Norwegian research vessel the Helmer Hanssen sailed out into the Arctic Ocean and were just off the coast of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard when they turned their lights off, plunging themselves into total darkness.


In a new episode of 63 degrees North, an original podcast by NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the team explain how they headed out into the complete darkness of the Arctic night, and what they found when they got there.

"[W]hen we looked down, we saw this cosmos of blue, green light that was shining and blinking and in a three-dimensional space, a bit like looking up and you see the cosmos with all the stars," Jørgen Berge, a polar marine biologist from the University of Tromsø, tells Nancy Bazilchuk.

"[T]hese were moments of realizing that there is something very special going on in the Arctic polar night that no one has ever examined before."


Listen to the full episode now available on Apple Podcasts below, and subscribe for more podcast episodes from 63 degrees North here

This article is sponsored by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.