An Arctic Journey: Chasing the Solar Eclipse

Yale scientist and Authorea Fellow Fabio Del Sordo just got back from a once-in-a-lifetime trip: he traveled to a group of remote arctic islands to chase one of the most inaccessible solar eclipses of the century. We asked him some questions.

Sunset over Longyearbyen - Svalbard. Credits: Fabio Del Sordo

Fabio, when did you decide to go watch an eclipse in the Arctic?
I’ve been feeling this urge to visit the northernmost parts of Earth for a while now. My PhD in Stockholm gave me the opportunity to explore the Norwegian coastline and Lapland, but the Arctic was a different story. A sort of forbidden dream. Then last year I started a postdoc at Yale, in the research group led by John Wettlaufer, who’s an expert on sea ice and the Arctic. When I heard there was gonna be a total solar eclipse at Svalbard I knew I had to go.

Where is Svalbard, exactly?
Svalbard is an archipelago situated about half way between continental Norway and the North Pole, and it is an outpost for research and arctic exploration. In Longyearbyen, a little city of about 2000 people, and Svalbard’s capital, there is the world’s northernmost institution for higher education and research: the University Center in Svalbard.

How hard it was to plan your trip?
I knew 2015 was gonna be a busy year for me, due to a combination of science projects, outreach with the GalileoMobile Constellation and other trips. But this was the chance of a lifetime and I couldn’t let it go. Within a few days after the idea sparked in my head, I had booked flights from New York City to Svalbard. Then I started planning the journey to meet the Sun and the Moon in the same spot of the sky. It was not easy, Svalbard is not exactly human-friendly. A rifle is mandatory if you adventure outside by yourself. You know, in case the polar bears are in a bad mood.

Wow! Tell us about those moments during the eclipse
After traveling a long distance and waiting for hours in a sunny - but very cold - morning, I saw the eclipse from the snow-covered valley of Adventalen. This place became an almost extraterrestrial land during the two and a half minutes of darkness, a show that left me in absolute awe. I think this video is the best way I have to show you what I saw and what I felt that morning.

Click the image below to watch this spectacular video

The video is absolutely amazing, thanks for sharing!! So, what kind of science can be done during an Eclipse?
There’s plenty of science to be investigated during an eclipse. One of the most relevant historical examples is the measurement of the deflection of light by the Sun, performed by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1919 during a total solar eclipse. Such experiment demonstrated that the Sun was indeed deflecting the light, as predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

What’s so special about an Arctic Eclipse?
Well, for example an eclipse at such high latitude gives an excellent opportunity to have measurements of the dayside aurora, which is a relatively common phenomenon at Svalbard. Aurora, or northern lights, is mostly known for its manifestation during the night at high latitudes, being a consequence of high-energy particles accelerated towards the terrestrial magnetic poles in the nightside of the terrestrial magnetosphere. Nevertheless, some particles are injected by the interplanetary magnetic field also in the dayside Earth magnetospheres, so generating the dayside aurora. Still, the presence of sunlight makes difficult to observe such phenomenon. Observation of dayside aurora have been carried out during the eclipse at KHO observatory, a few kilometers away from Longyearbyen. However, no northern light was visible with naked eye during the 2015 Svalbard eclipse. The eclipse was, in fact, quite luminous and the sky did not get too dark. The reason being that the Sun was very low - 11 degrees - on the horizon, and the white landscape was scattering large amounts of light. In general the Arctic is full of exciting, fascinating phenomena. For example, did you know that amazing frost flowers can appear when supercooled water droplets come in contact with sea ice? I am currently attending interesting seminars and field excursions on the characteristics of snowflakes and the remote sensing of the cryosphere. Arctic science, I feel, will soon provide us with some new insights on the exploration of extraterrestrial worlds.

Total Solar Eclipse - Svalbard. Credits: Fabio Del Sordo

What kind of science do you do when you’re not chasing eclipses and running from polar bears?
In the past I’ve been looking into the generation of magnetic fields in stars and galaxies, as well as the physics of northern lights. At the moment my research focuses on exoplanets and the characterization of their magnetic fields. Who knows, perhaps polar bears dwell on other planets too!

Aurora on Longyearbyen. Credits: Fabio Del Sordo

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