December 17, 2004

Scientists see global warming in bright twilight

Inuit hunters first to spot strange light in darkening Arctic sky


In a photo taken on Feb, 9, 2001, Wayne Davidson holds up a clock to show that the sun appears to be up above the horizon before the sunrise was supposed to occur. (PHOTO COURTESY OF WAYNE DAVIDSON)

Wayne Davidson

When warm air and light hit frigid air, strange effects are possible: the sun appears to play all kinds of tricks and assume many different shapes.

But these spectacular shows are not just a fancy display in the sky.

New evidence shows the way cold, heat and light meet in the High Arctic reveal global warming is having an impact - and, although this isn't good news for the region, how traditional environmental knowledge worked hand-in-hand with science is a success story of its own.

For years, hunters kept on telling the Environment Canada weather station agent in Resolute Bay that there was a new kind of light in the dark, winter sky.

"When Inuit say something they mean it. They're not kidding. And they see it together, and say 'wow this is happening' and don't backtrack and don't let scientists say it's not happening," said Wayne Davidson in a telephone interview from the weather station outside Resolute.

Inuit in Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord observed growing light along the horizon during the dark months of the year, like a rainbow or "city lights," according to one Grise Fiord resident.

"The monitors for this are the hunters. I'm a guy who goes to work at the weather station. I'm a darkness man. I honestly cannot see the difference because I don't depend on it. I see the brightness, but there's a difference between me and them. I go to work from the village to the station," said Davidson, who has manned the weather station in Resolute Bay for nearly 20 years.

"Hunters, they're out on the ice, and they depend on this twilight for a point of reference, for seeing. They would know. They're the first ones to know what's going on, and it contradicts what I was thinking at first."

Davidson thought the cold Arctic air was responsible for the presence of more light in the winter. He started looking closely at the results that come from the weather balloons he sends up every day that record air temperature. He also began taking even more photos of the sky, with a digital camera, that he posted on a Web site.

Physicists from abroad as well as various amateur observers logged on, and a scientific explanation for the increasingly bright twilight during the dark season emerged: the new polar light is a kind of mirage created by reflected light from two pools of cold and warm air.

"Extremely high horizon refraction" is an exaggerated version of what always happens when light bends as it travels through different mediums - like when you put a pencil in a glass of water and the underwater part looks bent. Try it, suggests Davidson. The same thing, he says, occurs in the High Arctic, when light comes through the atmosphere, is magnified by the hot air, then hits cold air.

Davidson has called this effect the "Y V Ulluq Q" phenomenon to honor scientists and Inuit, "the great people of the High Arctic."

The initials in this name are for his scientist colleagues, Andrew Young and Siebren Van der Werf, and for Inuit through the word ulluq, "daytime" in Inuktitut. The "Q" that stands for "Qausuittuq," the Inuktitut word for Resolute, which means "the place where tomorrow never comes."

The Y V Ulluq Q produces bright light during twilight, as light is refracted, or bent, by the cold and warm air layers. It's happening because of the increasingly warm air in the Arctic.

Some 200 to 1000 metres above the ground, there's a layer of warm air. For the past 10 years or so, the main effect of this warm air above the High Arctic has been to produce a bright twilight - but it might not stay that way.

Davidson is convinced the Y V Ulluq Q is a powerful warning signal that global warming is having a visible and growing impact even as far north as the High Arctic.

"You have to think of the thing as a struggle between warm and cold air. As long as this warm air is at its present state, it won't warm up the surface, but when it's strong enough, big enough and powerful enough, then it would start warming up everything. Things are changing."

Davidson says the science backs up what Inuit were saying all along.

In April 2001, scientists gathered at the Arctic Science Summit were skeptical when Olayuk Akesuk, who was then Nunavut's minister of sustainable development, told the gathering that one sign of climate change in Nunavut is that the sun is not rising in the same place it used to, but this observation could also be due to a mirage effect caused by the changing balance of cold and heat.

Davidson says he's drawn to mysteries, being the kind of person who says "maybe" when others say "no."

These days he's looking at stars, and tracking a star that disappears when there is too much ozone in the atmosphere.

He also has a project that suggests the weird and wonderful transformations the sun goes through have a connection to the ancient stone megaliths like Stonehenge.

"Stonehenge may have been inspired or built by a long-gone memory, a sudden catastrophic climate change, or... a fascinating array of thermal inversions in generally warmer or even very hot air!" says Davidson on his Web page.

For a sample of Davidsen's awe-inspiring photos and information-packed Web site, visit