Last Friday was an extraordinary day. Eclipse day. I awoke to mostly clear weather and couldn’t quite believe our luck. As I walked down through Longyearbyen towards the university (UNIS) just before seven o’clock, there was a large lenticular cloud hugging the summit of the mountain across the fjord, and some wispy, pink cirrus clouds up high. Otherwise the sky was blue. I met my friend Pål (pronounced Paul) at UNIS, an optics specialist in the atmospheric physics group, and we went across to the old aurora station in Adventdalen. Visiting scientists were there setting up their equipment for imaging and spectroscopy, and the Norwegian broadcaster NRK was preparing for a live broadcast. Pål set up his telescope and camera. The clouds disappeared and the sky became a perfect blue, the sun shining strong and clear and reflecting brightly around the snowy mountain landscape.
Reindalen was vast and beautiful – a wide, long expanse edged by flattened mountains that looked like a giant line of piled white sugar subsiding into the valley. The surface was mostly icy crust, again with puddles of snow, so pulling the sleds was relatively easy but we were accompanied always by the loud scraping sound of skis over uneven, frosty ice. It was too loud to talk. We progressed in our own individual worlds. Every hour or so we would stop for a very quick break – put on a down jacket, drink some water from our flasks, sit on our sleds and eat a few nuts or a biscuit, swapping our hands in our mitts between each action to prevent the fingers becoming painful from cold. Despite my best efforts they would hurt anyway, and it was always a relief to get going again and for the pain in the fingers to gradually diminish.
I am in Longyearbyen on Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago at around 80 degrees North.
On my way to Svalbard I spent a day in Oslo. I visited the Fram Museum and saw the polar expedition ship that I had read so much about. It’s rests in a dry dock on the peninsula of Bygdøy, housed in a triangular-tent-shaped building where one can circle the ship whilst reading about polar expeditions past.
“You should be here earlier in the winter. When it was colder,” said Knut, the Sami reindeer herder in his gruff, accented English. “Now it’s warm weather, rain, we can’t see the northern lights.”
“We haven’t seen them at all since I’ve been here,” I replied. “That’s nearly a week. It’s been cloudy every day.”
“When it’s so warm it [the northern lights] doesn’t come.”
“When is the best time to see it?”
“December or January. When it’s very cold.”
We were out in the hills with the reindeer somewhere around Karasjok, a few hours’ drive inland from Alta, near the Norwegian–Finnish border. That was March last year. I was in northern Norway researching a book I am writing on the northern lights. I am a plasma physicist and the aurora is plasma, so despite my academic interests in nuclear fusion (I was the IOP Schools’ Lecturer in 2010 on this subject), the northern lights have long fascinated me.