An epic eclipse, bright aurora, and the high Arctic

by Michael Zeiler

Eclipse chasers frequently have a "trip of a lifetime" every 18 months or so. That's because we seek out nature's most astonishing spectacle and our journeys usually take us to remarkable and exotic locations. All of these eclipse-chasing trips are filled with adventure, culture, and grandeur. After all, what a cosmic coincidence it is that the Moon can perfectly occult the Sun to reveal the most beautiful object in the sky, the Sun's corona. Once a total solar eclipse is first seen, eclipse chasers are smitten and go to great distances to catch another view of totality.

But I can truly say that my recent expedition to Svalbard was indeed a trip of a lifetime. We enjoyed a spectacular confluence of natural wonders and the great luck of perfectly sunny skies on eclipse day. The eclipse also drew us to the spectacular scenery of the high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. At 78 degrees North, we were halfway from the Arctic Circle to the North Pole and above nearly all the land mass of North America and Russia.

I was privileged to again  join the Williams College solar eclipse expedition organized by Professor Jay Pasachoff. Funding for the expedition came from Williams College and the National Geographic Socieity. Our last eclipse excursion was in November 2013 to the equatorial African nation of Gabon and we met with great success there.

The members of our party captured photography, video recording, and spectral measurements to continue scientific  records of the Sun's activity throughout the 11-year solar cycle.

Professor Pasachoff and his student, Allison Carter, captured high resolution images of the corona. Aris Vougaris, John Seiradakis, and Ron Dantowitz deployed sensitive spectrometers to document the relative abundances of highly ionized iron as a proxy for coronal temperature. Mike Kentrianakis captured a video record of the eclipse.

My main contribution to the expedition was to precisely identify which locations in the vicinity of Longyearbyen were suitable for eclipse observation. We faced two challenges in Svalbard: the Sun at eclipse was only 11 degrees above the horizon and we were in a mountainous terrain. I developed maps such as the one to the left to guide our site selection in the Adventdalen, the valley to the east of Longyearbyen.

Our adventure began on our flight from the United States to Oslo, Norway.  We had the amazing good luck of the strongest geomagnetic storm of the current 11-year solar cycle that evening. Through most of the flight, my travel partner, Mike Kentrianakis, and I were transfixed by the spectacle of bright and dancing auroral curtains and streaks through our jetliner windows.  

This show lasted for several hours and we couldn't sleep. The adrenalin of this celestial sight kept us going and we knew we had seen something truly remarkable.

I took these photographs with my Nikon D750 with zoom lens set to 28 mm. I set the camera to automatic,  pushed the ISO settings to maximum and maximized the additional stop settings. To my surprise, the aurora was so bright that I was able to capture these photographs with hand-held exposures. 

We arrived in Longyearbyen, the northernmost city in the world with about 2000 inhabitants. The bracing cold of the air plus the white scenery declared that we had entered the realm of the Arctic. After disembarking the aircraft, we were greeted by a stuffed polar bear in the airport terminal, reminding us that in this special habitat we do not occupy the top rung of the food chain.

Longyearbyen is the major settlement in Svalbard and a few other research and mining stations dot the archipelago. The hotels, restaurants, and other businesses were quite good considering the extreme environment. Because we were there during the Spring Equinox, day and night had similar lengths but the Sun never reached more then 11 degrees high in the sky.

Snowmobiles are as numerous as cars and dog sleds are another option to explore the backcountry. An ever present sight were rifles for rare but always present possibility of encounter with a polar bear. 

This settlement began as a mining operation exploiting the high-quality coal found here and currently the economy is transitioning to tourism and arctic research.

Eclipse day began with overcast clouds at sunrise that quickly dissipated. Weather is always the dominant concern of eclipse chasers, but we knew early on that we were in for a special treat. We situated ourselves on a broad ice field where we could enjoy the entire eclipse from begin to end.

From the moment the Moon first occulted the Sun to the end of eclipse was two hours. Of that duration, the total phase of the eclipse lasted 2 minutes and 27 seconds. Of special note were the obvious shadow bands dancing on the icy field in front of us.

These photographs were taken with a wide-angle fisheye lens on a Nikon D300. In these photographs, you can see the Moon's shadow sweeping in the sky from right to left.