Monday, April 06, 2015

Letter from Svalbard



Letter from Svalbard

by Jack Kessler

As the total solar eclipse of March 2015 neared, eclipse hounds, shadow chasers, and other moderately deranged people turned their eyes north.  The NASA maps showed that on Friday March 20, 2015 at 11 am, a solar eclipse would sweep across the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean.

The eclipse would be over land in only two places, the lovely Faeroe Islands and the remote island of Svalbard.  The Faeroes are scenic and a fine tourist destination.  They are famous for their sheep, their green hills, and their sweaters. They are also in the midst of the Gulf Stream and therefore one of the cloudiest and rainiest places on earth.  On average, the number of clear days to be expected in March hovers right around zero.  This was not good news.  If one can’t see the sun, one can’t see the eclipse.

For the mildly curious and the non-deranged, that was the end of the inquiry.   Like fans of losing sports teams everywhere, they said, “Wait ‘til next year” and got over it.

But for those with a slightly less tight grip on reality, there was still Svalbard, an island in the Arctic Ocean.   The average March daily high there is 14°F. and the average daily low is 2°.  It is in the middle of the ocean and therefore windy.

 Technically Svalbard is the archipelago of which Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen are the two largest islands.  This is ‘technically’ in the sense that ‘nobody cares’.  Everybody calls it all ‘Svalbard’.  You should too.

Svalbard belongs jointly to Norway and Russia though Norway is technically sovereign there.  Again ‘technically’ in the sense that…
Note the Russian jets at left

Until the recent beginnings of hiking-and-camping tourism, the sole economic activity was that the Norwegians mined coal on their end of the Ijsfjord (Ice Fjord) at their town of Longyearbyen and the Russians mined coal at their end of Ijsfjord at their town of Barentsburg.  Both are company towns and look like it.   Norwegian kroner circulate as the official currency except that everybody in Barentsburg gets paid in company tokens and scrip, which are freely convertible into rubles.  This is on account that Norway is “technically” sovereign.

There is an airport, which is five kilometers outside Longyearbyen and is served by Norwegian Air, SAS (Scandinavian Air Systems), and Aeroflot.

There is a sign in front of the airport that reads “78° 15’ N”.  For reference, the Arctic Circle is 67° N and the North Pole is 90° N, so Svalbard is roughly midway between the two.   Longyearbyen is the furthest north mere mortals can go without hiring a bush pilot or an Eskimo guide or a nuclear submarine.  For just buying an airline ticket, this as far north as one can get.  It is the furthest north on land one can go short of mounting an expedition either in northernmost Greenland or the northernmost coast of Ellsmere Island in Canada.

in front of the airport

As usual when eclipses are in remote places, the tour companies had booked up all the rooms long in advance.  Not most – all.   There were two problems with this.  One is that the tour companies charge a lot more for the rooms than they pay for them.  The second is that even if one could afford their prices, they were sold out.

That left either foregoing the eclipse and looking forward to the next one, in 2016, or.…  There was still the option of the public campground just down the hill from the airport.   Keep in mind we are talking about camping out in the High Arctic, in winter.   Camping, as in sleeping in a tent, on the ground.

The campground website set down various rules one would expect in any well-run campground.  But they included one I had not seen before.  Campers had to take their turn on polar bear watch.  They weren’t even kidding.  They gave us a little flare pen, though it wasn’t clear what we were supposed to do with it if we saw a bear.

Not going to the Faeroes eliminated the merely curious.  Not finding somewhere to sleep indoors on Svalbard eliminated the merely enthusiastic.  The polar bear hazard added another soupcon of incaution to the resulting human filtrate.  The campground was for the eclipse-unhinged.  There were about thirty of us.  It was the best group of people I have ever had the honor to be among.

unfamiliar territory for a city boy from California

Much to my surprise, when I got the expedition-grade tent put up (and after an episode of it attempting to fly into the fjord because I had put the poles in before I had enough pegs hammered into the permafrost and ice) and into the army surplus ECWS (Extreme Cold Weather System) sleeping bag, while wearing four pairs of long johns and an ECWS overalls, I was actually comfortable – as long as I kept my ECWS mittens and yooper rabbit fur hat on.  I also had ECWS boots, ECWS gloves, four sweaters and a heavy leather jacket.

I am a lifetime Californian so this was alien to me.  We have to drive four hours to get to snow and there hasn’t been any the past four winters.  If the overnight temperature drops below 50° there are news stories about it.  While I was camping on Svalbard one windy night was -13° F.   I realize that below zero is not a big deal to readers from the Midwest and Canada, but how often do you camp out in it?

Why is the fjord steaming?  Not a rhetorical question - no one knew.
So I was equipped for the cold but not personally prepared for it.

Still, the fjord and the whole snowy island were ethereally beautiful even marred by the occasional rusting coal mining crane.

Because of the high latitude, while the sun never gets very high above the horizon, neither does it go very low below it.  So there is always at least a dim last-moment-of –dusk light.

While on polar bear patrol it was pointed out that because we were so far north the Big Dipper/Great Bear/Plough and Polaris were almost directly overhead, near the zenith.  It made an unfamiliar sky as though it were a third hemisphere.

My bear patrol partner was a young fellow from near Oslo, Jens.  Jens was at least 6’10”.  He may have been taller but those kinds of heights become a blur to me.   I may have been 5’5” in my twenties but I haven’t been in my twenties for a long time.  I would probably be exaggerating if I claimed to still be 5’3”.  So we made a ridiculous pair.  If we couldn’t escape the ice bears, as the Norwegians call them, maybe we could make them laugh.  I have often thought what would make a good epitaph is a stage instruction from Shakespeare, “[Exit laughing]”.

At first I suspected that the polar bear patrols were a joke, hazing the new kids, like snipe hunts at Boy Scout camp.  Later I learned that a white bear had put a man in the hospital a few kilometers away from our campground, even though he had shot it in self-defense.  The town police found the injured bear and killed her.  Which was painfully sad on both sides.  That made the patrols more in earnest.

Because of the polar bears, the Norwegians require that anyone leaving the populated areas must be in groups of at least two and that at least one of them must have a rifle and know how to use it.  It is a kind of reverse gun control.

I am no fan of the premeditated killing of wild animals and even less enthusiastic about them killing me, so I will have to pass on Svalbard in the summer.   That is a major disappointment.

The foreground and background are both in focus so why is the surface of the fjord blurry?  Heat mirages are caused by the temperature gradient between water and air.  Even though both are cold they form heat mirages at the water surface.

Glaciers flowing into Ijsfjord

Some of the polar bear patrols saw the Northern Lights as green curtains, one even got a picture of it.   It looked like a green flower with violet streaks.  I saw only tepid pale green stripes across the sky.

In keeping with the theme of marginal lunacy there is a tradition of giving a certificate of accomplishment to anyone who skinny-dips in Ijsfjord.  In spite of the obvious poor judgment shown by doing so, at least three threw their fragile warm bodies into the frozen merciless waters of that arm of the polar ocean, two Swedes and a Czech. 

earning the certificate

There had been clouds so we were all apprehensive but eclipse day dawned bright, clear and cold.   Walking along the road to where my new friends, the German Ph.D. student in astrophysics (who had saved my tent from flying into the fjord), the young British photographer, and the young pretty German campground attendant (whom I kept shamelessly trying to fix up with the young astrophysicist  :o), I walked past at least two dozen people with their camera lenses pointed at where they expected the sun and moon to be. There was the obligatory row of Japanese with even fancier and more expensive cameras than anyone else.  One man had a telephoto lens a yard long.
With that many pictures of totality waiting to be splashed all over the internet, the last thing I was going to do during my precious two minutes of transcendence was futz with my camera.  Though everyone else does it, it seems crazy to take pictures of the eclipse.  I want nothing between me and direct experience of the thing itself.  I want to feel the wonder and majesty, not adjust ISO, f-stops, and focus.

As the time passed after first contact, the moment when the moon first starts to cover the face of the sun, the light slowly dimmed.  The glorious scenery of the high mountain ridges across the fjord became eerie as the light changed to a silvery-gray that one sees only during eclipses.

As totality neared and the sun shrank to a thin crescent there were distinct ripples of light on the ground like the ripples one sees at the bottom of a swimming pool.  These were the same effect but these were ripples at the bottom of a sea of air, the atmosphere.

For the first time in the many eclipses to which I have been, I stood with my back to the sun as totality approached.  I saw the shadow of the moon in the distance rushing up the icy fjord toward us.  It came as a swift darkness over the land. 

I turned at the last second and saw the diamond ring effect.  When all the face of the sun but the last speck has been covered, usually because the last tiny bit of sun is peeking between mountains on the moon, that speck is still so bright that it makes a brilliant last flash.  For reasons no one understands, at that moment a pale glowing ring appears for an instant around the jet-black moon.

And then it vanishes.  Totality begins.   Second contact.  I can describe what I saw but not what I felt.   What one feels is ineffable.  The closest I can come is ‘ecstatic’ but that isn’t it either.

Around the sun and moon the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, appeared.  It is a pure pale white light against a near-black sky.  The corona was good-sized but was extraordinary in that it one could see black magnetic field lines etched in it.   The corona is among the most beautiful things one sees in life. 

It is also a mystery.  The corona is up to 1,000,000° F. whereas the surface of the sun is only 6,000°.  This is the equivalent of the heat emitted by an ice cube melting steel.  There is speculation and hand-waving about how the sun’s magnetic field somehow heats the corona but no clear explanation of how that would work. 

The size of the corona varies with the 11 year sunspot cycle, larger at sunspot maxima, smaller at sunspot minima, though there are many other factors which I won’t bore you with because I don’t know what they are.  The sun was near a minimum so we weren’t expecting much.  We were wrong.

Around the edge of the sun-and-moon there were at least six prominent pink blobules called Bailey’s beads.  These are great solar flares extending thousands of miles above the “surface” of the sun (the sun doesn’t properly have a surface because it is a ball of hot gas, not a solid).  The flares showed that the sun was active and putting on a show for us, the handful of idiots dumb enough to be among the frozen wastes, the glorious frozen wastes, of Svalbard.

Looking up and down the fjord one could see the light scattered by the edges of the eclipse, in effect an evening at the leading edge and a dawn at the trailing edge.  There was a rosy-apricot sunset in the distance at one end of the fjord, rosy-fingered dawn at the other.

The stars came out, Venus, others.   Mercury was apparently in opposition on the far side of the sun from us so it wasn’t visible this time.  Everybody knows about Mercury but few ever see it.  I have seen it only during totalities.

Some people wept, some laughed, some did both, some were struck dumb.  People hugged strangers.  I whooped inarticulate noises of joy and exhilaration which echoed off the high snowy ridges along the fjord.

As totality ended, third contact, there was a second diamond ring effect.  I have been going to eclipses for a quarter of a century now and this was the first time I have seen two diamond rings in one eclipse.

It was an eclipse that had everything.  It was a splendid eclipse per se.  It was under a bright clear blue sky.  The snowy Ijsfjord scenery was magnificent.  It was an adventure to be there.  And the company at the campground was the best.  Most were Europeans, many, but by no means all, were young.   

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!  --Wordsworth

For a moment, I was young too.

I have to congratulate and thank Norwegian Air and SAS for not jacking up the air fares to and from Svalbard tenfold the way LAN Chile did for the Easter Island eclipse a few years back.

Everyone who is reading this, meet me in Indonesia in March 2016 and we’ll do it again.

No comments:

Post a Comment