Challenges, hazards, innovation during harsh Nordic winters

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Benedict Lopez describes how one Norwegian town has dispelled gloom by bringing in sunshine during its harsh winters.

Winters expose the spectacular beauty of all Nordic countries with their snow-capped landscapes, children playing in the snow and skiing enthusiasts displaying their skills on mountain slopes. It can be a time of merriment but it can also be a period of despondency for many in the region.

The gaiety of people is blended with the challenges they face as a result of these severe winters. It was also a time for me, as someone from the tropics, to reflect on what I had taken for granted – the abundant sunshine. That is a precious commodity for those in the Nordic countries during winter.

Rjukan in Norway is no exception. A small Norwegian town in the Vestfjord Valley in the Telemark region, it lies 177km from the capital Oslo and 480km east from the North Sea. Despite being an industrial town, it is seldom in the public eye as it has been eclipsed by other well-known Norwegian cities like Bergen and Stavanger, which are noted for their economic clout.

This Norwegian town has a long history of tourism spanning more than one hundred years, with noteworthy attractions like the Rjukan Falls, which has been highlighted by well-known artists. For eco-tourists, the place is a haven for hiking, especially inn the highlands of Hardangervidda.

The Norwegian mountains, where the waters surge downstream, are ideal for generating electricity. One company located its fertiliser plant here because of the Rjukan Falls, a 104-metre waterfall, which provided a good source to generate the electricity the firm needed.

Rjukan, with a population of less than 4,000, is disadvantaged as it is located in a steep valley flanked by mountains. As a result, its residents are denied sunshine half the year, from around the end of September to March.

The town’s founder, Sam Eyde, an industrialist, who started two famous Norwegian firms, also conceived the idea of a sun mirror above the town way back in 1913. He realised it was psychologically important to enable his employees to enjoy the aura of sunlight in winter. Eyde mooted the idea and followed up with the construction of a cable car, which ferried the residents of Rjukan up the mountain, enabling them to experience sunshine during the dismal winter months.

Fast track a century later. The marvels and evolution of technology today has made an idea that was first envisioned in 1913 a reality: bringing sunshine directly to the people of Rjukan

An astonishing change took place in Rjukan in October 2013, when its residents enjoyed a sunny day in winter. If Nature had deprived the inhabitants of Rjukan their fair share of brightness during winter, then this innovation has resolved that problem through solar energy.

Nearly 500 metres above the town on top of the mountain, three large solar-powered, computer-controlled mirrors, equipped with sensors, trail the passageway of the sun. These mirrors reflect the rays of the sun down on to the town square, bathing the area in sunshine. The entire mirror system costs more than US$800,000.

The absence of sunlight and the gloominess of winter can dampen spirits, and many suffer from winter blues. Many people who experience the periods of continuous darkness during winter succumb to depression, but this eventually retreats when sunlight returns.

People in the Nordic countries who can afford it make a beeline for the warmer climate of countries like Thailand. A Finnish taxi driver in Helsinki once told me how much he detested the punishing winters in Finland after an accident that injured him badly. He now goes every year to the Philippines during the winter months as his son is based there.

Many people living in the tropics frequently complain about the humidity and the heat. Only when you have experienced the murkiness and severity of winter, especially when temperatures often fall to below freezing point, sometimes as low as -30C, will you appreciate tropical sunshine.

I experienced these gruelling winter conditions for more than four years, My first winter in Stockholm in November 2010 hit me bad. I fell sick one day, coughing so badly that my chest hurt. Still, I went to work that day, and before returning to my apartment in the evening, I bought a bottle of cough mixture from the apotek (pharmacy). But the medicine could not cure me and I continued coughing.

Once in my apartment, I collapsed and fainted as I was about to enter the washroom. Just before passing out, I thought I was going to make it to the obituary column of the local press. But someone up there thought my time was not up. The next day, I visited the doctor who prescribed a much stronger cough mixture, which cured me within a day.

After this bitter experience, I gradually got acclimatised to the inclement winter weather over my remaining time in the Nordic countries.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. An eternal optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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