Are you SAD yet?

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hours of sunup on Nov 15th

Everybody is different, but the reduced light in the North and the gloomy weather in many parts of Alaska at this time of year affect almost everyone to some degree or another. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the fancy name for the winter blues, bad weather blahs, cabin fever, hibernation instinct…fill in the blank with your term. If you are not familiar with the phenomenon, here’s the Mayo Clinic’s briefing.

hours of sunup on Nov 15th
November 15th potential sunlight

Daylight

Northern areas have much shorter days than more southerly parts of Alaska or elsewhere at this point in the winter, but there are mitigating factors helping them: longer twilight morning and evening, fewer clouds and more reliable snow cover to reflect available light and provide contrast. And don’t forget the aurora borealis, which is seen much more frequently in the north and east parts of the state. Of course there is no getting around the extremely short days in the far north, down to zero mid-winter a ways north of the Arctic Circle (the sun does not break the horizon in Barrow from Nov 20th to Jan 22nd.)

Cloud cover

Even a sliver of sun can help if you are outside to receive it. But, as mentioned above, northern areas have shorter days and lower sun angles, and coastal areas have more clouds and precipitation it’s not easy in Alaska. Some areas are fairly far south yet somewhat protected from the ocean weather, so offer a little more brightness. The Cook Inlet area and north into the Susitna Valley and northeast to the Copper River Basin fit into this category, but as one goes inland from Anchorage it gets colder quickly, and many areas are windy. In Southeast Alaska, the northern end of the Inside Passage, Haines and Skagway, occupy a similar sweet spot, but the wind and sun blocking mountains need to be reckoned with.

Early Nov sun from Haines AK
Early Nov sun from Haines AK

Climate of origin

One hypothesis I’ve promoted is that where you grew up predisposes your mental/physical response to the weather and daylight. If you were raised in a sunny area, you’re going to have a harder time with the dark and cloudy seasons. All I have is the stories of people I’ve met, but I don’t think the idea is too far-fetched. I’d love to hear reader’s stories or opinions on this.

What to do?

Wherever you are from, here are some of my suggestions to get through the winter:

  • get outside as much as possible
  • exercise regularly
  • have a variety of activities
  • go to Mexico

Well, I’ve not yet made it Mexico, but I do make it to the pool. Our pool is warm, humid and brightly lit. It’s got everything but the sand and food carts.

My other favorite exercise is cross country skiing. A combination of a total body workout, fresh air, natural light and the exhilaration of gliding down the hills make it unbeatable in my book. And it need not be a cold activity. You can produce a lot of heat skiing. There’s nothing nicer than skiing for a while, then stopping and thinking to yourself, “I’m comfortably warm all over, despite the weather.” You can do that in the cold. You can’t do that it the heat.

With the El Nino winter ahead, I’m not counting on a lot of powdery snow in coastal areas this winter, so its nice to have the pool.

Summer SAD:

A surprise to some is that SAD is not a winter-only issue. There are people who suffer in the summer. I’m not talking about those who live in hot or hot/humid places and simply can’t wait for cool weather so they can get outside, etc. The surprising effect is on those of us who live where sunny, warm weather comes in small batches sprinkled into a cool, cloudy climate. When there is a longer than normal stretch of sunny summer weather, we can experience a barely conscious nervousness, perhaps spawned by worries of over-exposure and the feeling, when inside,  that we are not taking advantage of the good weather to recreate or get things done outside. Another unease is the feeling that something is not right, as in “we don’t deserve this much sun.” Some people get a little manic, can’t sustain it and burn out. Some people genuinely have a hard time with the constant brightness (remember how long the days are in summer). People with these symptoms probably grew up in a cloudy climate, a reverse corollary to my theory above. Here’s a post about this subtopic from UW prof. Cliff Mass’s NW weather blog.

Please let me know in the comments your winter happy strategies. The exception is if you are writing from the tropics, then keep it to yourself.

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