Total solar eclipse as seen from the Arctic

Total solar eclipse
© Miloslav Druckmüller, Shadia Habbal, Peter Aniol, Pavel Starha

Braving polar bears and subfreezing temperatures, years of preparation pay off for a University of Hawaii astronomy team.

According to NASA, the number of total solar eclipses between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 3000 is a precise 3,173. Which means that they are not the rarest of phenomena. But to be in the right place, at the right time, and to have the skies behave, makes for the successful observation of one not a particularly common event.

So it was likely with anticipation when the international Solar Wind Sherpas team, led by Dr. Shadia Habbal of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Institute for Astronomy, started their final preparations to observe the total solar eclipse of March 20, 2015. Heading to the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago east of northern Greenland (below), the team faced ever-changing weather predictions, subfreezing temperatures of -4F and the danger of polar bears.

But their years of hard work paid off. They were graced with crystal clear skies over the snow-covered landscape before, during and after totality – and they were not eaten by polar bears. They were able to capture a beautiful solar corona.

The team set up their vast array of equipment – six digital SLR cameras fitted with different focal length lenses, four astrophotography cameras with special filters to observe the colors of light given off by ionized iron atoms, stripped of 10 and 13 electrons, and a special instrument called a dual-channel imaging spectrograph – inside the old Northern Light Observatory.

Total solar eclipse as seen from over the Arctic© What the corona looks like in the colors of light given off by ionized iron atoms stripped of 13 electrons. Photo: Solar Wind Sherpas
The shadow bands, thin bands of light and dark observed prior to and during totality, were remarkable as the snow-covered landscape offered ideal conditions for seeing them, notes a press release for the work. “The corona of the eclipsed sun, which was at an altitude of 12 degrees, was shimmering throughout the 2 minutes and 20 seconds of totality, with one large prominence clearly visible to the naked eye.”

And while all of this preparation could have been swiftly negated by temperamental weather, the team actually did have a Plan B. And a Plan C and D as well. Other members of the Solar Wind Sherpas team observed from three other sites: the Faroe Islands; a Falcon Dassault flying at 49,000 feet over the Faroe Islands, and an Irish Marine Corps DC-3 flying out of Dublin.

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