December 03, 2004

It's like a glimmer on the horizon

It's amazing. After years of exaggerating the snow-vocabulary of arctic peoples, suddenly journalists everywhere are obsessed with the allegedly gaping holes in northland lexicons. Now Graeme Smith in the Globe and Mail of 12/2/2004 is going on about light on the horizon at night:

Inuit have no word for twilight. For centuries, people felt no need for such a word in the Arctic communities where the sun stays in the sky all summer and disappears below the horizon all winter.

New vocabulary became necessary in the past few years, however, as hazy light started lingering on the southern horizon deep into the months when the sky normally would contain nothing but stars.

Residents of Nunavut struggle for words when asked to describe the phenomenon.

"It's like dawn," said Marty Kuluguqtuq, a municipal worker in Grise Fiord. "It's like a glimmer on the horizon."

That sounds like a pretty successful struggle to me. The next time I'm out in a public place after dark, I'll ask some Philadelphia locals what they call the sky-glow on the horizon, and see if they do as well.

[Update 12/4/2004: Ray Girvan at the Apothecary's Drawer weblog points out that the rest of the reporting in Smith's article is even more confused than the linguistics is. First, as Ray put it in email, "Within inhabited regions, ... arctic winter night *is* only a twilight by nautical and astronomical definitions." Second, the effect under discussion ("Extremely High Horizon Refraction") is nothing at all like twilight, as experienced at whatever latitudes. Finally, the effect has always been around, but may have become more common recently because of global warming. At least that's the view of Wayne Davidson, the Environment Canada station operator in Resolute Bay, and the focus of Smith's article. Wayne Davidson has other interesting ideas about the effects of climate change on celestial observation. He argues that Stonehenge was a " mirage machine", built at a time when the climate of England was radically different from what it's been like in historical times. He writes:

It was simply colder then or for some unknown reason, the Gulf Stream ceased to flow towards Northern Europe, in this case, UK weather would have turned to be very much sub-arctic in nature. Cold dense air caused extreme refraction effects, particularly near the horizon. At sunset or sunrise, the sun disk transformed itself to several fascinating geometric structures, causing it to briefly look like the lintels on top of the Sarsen pillars. Thus, the very existence of Stonehenge was inspired from the sky, copied by large megaliths in order to capture the magic of a round sun transforming itself into a rectangle. Dedication for permanency, ode to the sun, drove the builders to use large stones.



Posted by Mark Liberman at December 3, 2004 03:42 PM