Svalbard’s Total Eclipse

Totality on 20th March 2015, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, by Ivar Marthinusen.

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.  


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.


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.

* * *

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.

DSC05114 - Version 2

“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

Nansen’s ship Fram

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.

The Fram

The Fram

The Fram was built for Nansen specially for his pioneering expedition to the North Pole. His plan, which many at the time regarded as madness, was to lodge the ship in the ice purposely and drift with the current to North Pole. There was a theory that currents circulated in the Arctic Ocean, and wreckage of an American vessel caught in the ice and sunk near the Bering Strait had turned up in Greenland, convincing Nansen that it may be possible to drift to the pole.  The Fram, christened by Nansen’s wife Eva and meaning “forward”, was constructed with a smooth, rounded hull so as the ice compressed it it would be pushed up rather than crushed, in the way a hazelnut squeezed low between fingers will push up and out of grip. The ship was well insulated and made homely. Leisure was considered as well as the numerous scientific measurements that must be made. There was a semi-automatic organ and other instruments, a 600-volume library and numerous games. This would be home for the next 3 years (they took food for about 6).

Walking around the Fram, I was struck by the smallness of the berths and the cabins. The ceilings are low with broad beams and the doorways are small. Men surely would have had to duck as they walked around.  Not unusual for a ship perhaps, but being there and considering this was all that 13 men had for three years gave a new appreciation of the expedition.  However, the ship looked comfortable (at least on dry land when it wasn’t lurching sideways) and attractive in old-style wood and burgundy velveteen. The galley looked spacious, and the men certainly didn’t want for food. Nansen in his diary frequently recounts a good meal they had. Nutrition was another aspect of the trip planned carefully. None of the men got scurvy and most gained weight.

Nansen was a scientist before an explorer and consequently all his expeditions – and others of the Fram later – had strong scientific objectives. As well as testing the theory of the east-west current and filling in blank areas on the map, the team made measurements on oceanography, meteorology, marine geology, geomagnetism, flora and fauna, and the aurora.

Nansen wrote in his diary that they saw northern lights almost every day when it wasn’t cloudy. He described many a good auroral display, often becoming philosophical under their light.  “In the north are quivering arches of faint aurora, trembling now like awakening longings, but presently, as if at the touch of a magic wand, to storm as streams of light though the dark blue of heaven — never at peace, restless as the very soul of man.” Additionally, they witnessed a solar eclipse on 8th April 1894.

In March 1895, after two winters drifting on the Fram yet not getting closer to the pole, Nansen and one crew member, Johansen, left the ship to make a dash for the pole on skis, taking some sledges and dogs. They struggled over sea ice for about a month, reaching 86º 14’ N, further than any men had been previously, before turning round for an even longer and more perilous journey back to land. Temperatures sometimes reached almost as low as -40C. They overwintered on Franz Josef Land and were lucky to bump into Jackon’s British expedition in spring 1896.  They returned with the British to Norway, arriving a week before the Fram, who had broken free of the ice.

This year, 2015, is the International Year of Light and I am a plasma physicist writing a book on the northern lights. I’ve come to Longyearbyen to visit the scientific facilities and see the solar eclipse at the end of March, but also to experience the northern lights in the remote wilderness and get a flavour of what it must have been like for Arctic explorers over a hundred years ago making forays into this inhospitable land.

My next post will be about my own ski trip across Svalbard, braving similarly low temperatures (but not contending with sea ice), to really gain an understanding of what these explorers went through.

* * *

This blog was first published on the International Year of Light UK website on 27th February 2015 as Notes from the North – Part 1

* * *

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 first post, she visits the Fram Museum – home of the historic ship Fram (“forward”) built for Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893 Arctic expedition. 

An Arctic Adventure

Map of the North showing the Arctic Circle

Map of the North showing the Arctic Circle

I’m writing a book on the Northern Lights, and as part of the research I’m travelling to various Arctic regions – Sweden, Norway, Canada and Iceland being the main ones.  Looking at the map, I feel I should be visiting Russia too, as I’m actually missing out half the world!

In March I visited the north of Norway, travelling from Alta (North of Tromso marked on the map) to Hammerfest and up to North Cape, the most northerly point of mainland Europe.  With a Norwegian friend, Cecilie, I watched the start of the Finnmarkslopet dog-sled race, went snow-mobile riding and visited a reindeer herd with a Sami herder. And we did a bit of aurora hunting too.


In just over a week’s time I’ll be off on a four week trip to Canada, the USA and Iceland.  I’ll be visiting scientists at the University of Calgary then travelling up to Athabasca and Yellowknife (you can see Yellowknife on the map, just outside the Arctic circle) to see some of the research stations and take in the landscape.  In the US I’ll be visiting Boulder and the Space Weather Prediction Centre.  Then in Iceland I’ll be learning about the geothermal landscape.  It should be an interesting trip!  I’ll try and report back as I go along.