Svalbard’s Total Eclipse

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The total solar eclipse above the mountains of Svalbard.

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.  

Sunspotter

The image of the eclipse on the Sunspotter

After nine a group of students arrived. Up and down Adventdalen people were gathering. It was freezing – probably around -20C – and I was wearing full down clothing.  People walked around between small groups, trying to keep warm and anticipating “first contact”.  Then, at about twelve minutes past ten local time, there it was.  The moon touched the sun and we watched it gradually move across, people tracking the progress through their eclipse glasses.  We also had a Sunspotter, a folded Keplerian telescope which projected an image of the sun onto a small screen.  People gathered round to watch.

Gradually the sun shrunk down to a small crescent, then a sliver. At this point it became noticeably darker, though still quite light. “It’s just like looking through sunglasses,” I heard a student nearby exclaim.  Except we weren’t wearing sunglasses.  Then, a strange strobe-like effect began, clearly visible as flickering light-and-dark on the snow.  These were the shadow bands – rippling waves of light caused as the final, almost point-source, sliver of light is focussed and defocussed as it passes through warmer and cooler air currents in the atmosphere.  People talk about watching out for the shadow bands because they are easy to miss.  Experts recommend putting a white sheet on the ground because they are most visible on a flat, white surface.  There they were obvious – we had a landscape of pure white snow all around.

Incredibly quickly, after seemingly only a few pulses of the strobe, there was sudden brightening, the diamond ring effect, and then darkness.  Totality.  The moon was completely blocking the sun and I looked up at it with naked eye. I could see the pink tinge of the chromosphere (so called because of this distinctive pink colour) and prominences, though the fine structure of the prominences was more visible by telescope than by eye.  I think I just saw the colour. The solar corona glowed silver, a ring around the dark shape of the moon stretching short, silky fingers outwards into the black. It looked fairly symmetrical to me, not highly pinched in any direction.  It was like the sun had taken on the moon’s sheen, an eerie, ethereal silver.  It was beautiful.  I looked around at the mountains. The darkness was not pitch black, more a navy blue, perhaps from all the snow to reflect the light.  The mountains could be seen clearly and the horizon all around gave out a yellow glow.  People stood staring up in awe.

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The moment of totality. Pink prominences can be seen.

All too soon there was another bright burst of light and the sun was back. I fumbled in my mittens to open my eclipse glasses again and looked up to see the newly exposed crescent of the sun as the moon moved on its way.  I took a deep breath as people around whooped and began discussing how incredible it was.  I couldn’t quite believe that I had witnessed a total solar eclipse.  I felt elated.  It had all worked perfectly.  I was in Svalbard, the weather cleared, the heavens aligned.  To be in such a phenomenally beautiful setting in the wide valley, with the mountains around, the snow, the light – it was special.

After totality we watched the sun return to us in full, everyone talking excitedly about what they had seen.  Then at twelve past midday the moon made last contact and was gone.  Everyone packed up and left, leaving Adventdalen deserted once more.  Apart from the scientists taking measurements from inside the old aurora station building, Pål and I were the least to leave, clearing the place up like at the end of a party.

A lecturer at UNIS last week compared a partial and total eclipse thus: “it’s like a kiss on the cheek versus a night of passion.”  It’s true.  I saw the partial eclipse near London in 1999 (I didn’t go to Cornwall) but I wasn’t prepared for the difference.  What I found most interesting, most incredible, this time was the sudden transition from light to dark, from crescent to corona.  It was the way the land went dark almost instantaneously that really struck me – one minute strobing shadows, then a bright flash, then darkness. Then the sun as you have never seen her.  I have seen pictures of the corona before but, just like viewing the aurora, to witness it as part of the landscape gives and new depth to the experience, something that I am exploring in my upcoming book, Seeing the Light.

I am truly grateful to have been there in Svalbard to see the eclipse.  I’m pleased that there was so much excitement and activity in the UK, and that so many people were able to get a glimpse of the splendour of this celestial event for themselves by viewing the partial eclipse.  But I urge you to remember that if you saw the partial it was just a glimpse, and I hope that one day you will have the opportunity to see totality for yourself too.

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This blog was first published on the International Year of Light UK website on 23th March 2015 as Notes from the North – Part 4

* * *

Plasma physicist and adventurer, Melanie Windridge, is on an expedition to the frozen wilderness of Svalbard to witness the northern lights. In a series of letters, she shares her experiences as she walks in the footsteps of the earliest polar explorers and battles the elements in pursuit of science. In her fourth post she has a front row seat to one of the biggest events of the International Year of Light – a total solar eclipse!

Read parts 12 and 3 of her adventure.

Aurora in the Wilderness

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.

Freezing up

Freezing up

It got colder.  By day three I could no longer write my diary because my fingers were too cold even in the tent.  Getting into camp was a race to get everything set up and to get warm. As the guide pitched the tent I would get the bedding, fuel, burners, pan, food and guns ready to go in. He would put up the polar bear trip wire and I would get everything inside and dig a step in the porch for easy access, piling snow up in the other half for melting for water later.  Then I’d go into the tent, pump up my sleeping mat, organise, get changed and get in my sleeping bag to get warm and out the way as the guide came in.  By day four when we got in the tent our clothing was stiff with frost.  There was solid ice around the front collars of our jackets.  I hadn’t been able to wear my goggles because the view became clouded by millions of tiny ice crystals. Taking off mittens for more than a few seconds, even in the tent, made fingers scream in pain.  We lit a burner in the tent to take the edge off.  It wasn’t warm, but we could function.  We could pass a relatively pleasant evening once we had eaten our rehydrated food and heated up water for our bottles, chatting in our sleeping bags over the small burner.  Morning was unpleasant.  I never enjoyed wiping away the ice from the opening of my sleeping bag and wriggling my way out into the frigid air.

One evening I went out around eleven o’clock and saw the northern lights.  They were a feint greenish white, stretched out east-west across the whole sky and reaching up in places like towers to the heavens.  From where we were camped we had a wide view and it was beautiful to see the lights over the full horizon.  However, what I had not been prepared for when I planned this trip was quite how cold it would be.  The temperature was a huge barrier to enjoying the northern lights, not just because it was cold to stay out there watching, but because it required a huge strength of will just to leave the tent and see if there was any activity. I think I had romantic notions of enjoying the lights from a tent in the snow, but I was not prepared for what it would feel like in these temperatures.  Even the guide was cold.

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“This was one of the coldest trips I have ever done,” the guide said to me afterwards. “I’ve never skied in padded trousers before.” He has been guiding for ten years and has made numerous trips to the North and South Poles. He said this trip was worse than skiing to the North Pole.  This is because we weren’t seeing the sun, so nothing warmed, nothing dried.  Many ski trips go under the midnight sun.

I learned that the conditions the polar explorers had to endure were extreme.  Out there, everything is about getting things done as quickly and efficiently as possible.  If you stop you get cold.  It’s dangerous.  You have to focus on doing just what is necessary.  I was grateful to have my experienced guide looking out for me.  I certainly have a greater appreciation now of what these explorers and scientists did in these frozen regions.  And I also know that a camping trip is not the best way to experience the northern lights.

* * *

This blog was first published on the International Year of Light UK website on 13th March 2015 as Notes from the North – Part 3

* * *

Plasma physicist and adventurer, Melanie Windridge, is on an expedition to the frozen wilderness of Svalbard to witness the northern lights. In a series of letters, she shares her experiences as she walks in the footsteps of the earliest polar explorers and battles the elements in pursuit of science. In her third post, we rejoin her journey as she continues to brave the cold and manages to see the northern lights.

Read part 2 of her adventure

Dr Melanie Windridge

info 'at' melaniewindridge.co.uk
 @m_windridge /DrMelanieWindridge m_windridge