The March 20, 2015, Total Solar Eclipse, Spitzbergen, Svalbard
Joe Cali

On Friday March 20th 2015, a total solar eclipse was visible from the north Atlantic ocean.  This eclipse was eclipse number 60 of 71 eclipses in Saros 120. Saros 120 began on May 27, 933 AD.  All 71 eclipses of this saros series occur on the Moons descending node with the Moon moving northward with each eclipse.  The 2015 eclipse was the second last total eclipse in the Saros.  The last 9 eclipses in the Saros are all partial.

The eclipse began in the North Atlantic Ocean south of Greenland and finished at the North Pole. Its path avoided all major landmasses leaving eclipse chasers with limited options. The only landfalls were two island groups, The Faroe Islands and Svalbard. Other options included observations from cruise ships at sea or aircraft intercepts.

Click here to skip the travel log and jump straight to the eclipse report and photos.

Travel Log

Aurora Observing and photography
Prior to traveling to Svalbard, my friend Bengt Alfredsson and I spent a week in the Tromsø region observing aurorae.
We observed and photographed two spectacular events. Click here to view my Aurora photographs and description.

Sea ice seen on approach to Longyearbyen
When I was in my 20's and 30's, I'd spend almost every weekend of winter and spring going cross country skiing.  If there was snow on the ground in the Australian Snowy Mountains, you'd find me there. I went ski mountaineering on glaciers in New Zealand and in Europe. Some people shut down and hibernate in the cold. I love it.  Cold weather invigorates me.  I love the feel of icy cold wind on my face. My regular observing partner, Bengt Alfredsson is from Sweden.  He, predictably, hates the cold. Nonetheless, when we began considering this eclipse back in 2011, it didn't take long for us to agree on the Arctic environment of Svalbard. Weather prospects, though poor, we better than the other landfall. Neither of us like air or ship platforms.  

Intimidating climate statistics indicated possible temperatures anywhere between -5oC and -35oC and high cloud percentages.  I prepared my equipment and purchased special clothing suitable for these conditions. I built a power supply powered by
Li Fe S2 batteries capable of working at very low temperatures.
It needed to be able to power my telescope motor drive and camera to -40oC if necessary.  I equipped one DSLR with the same low temperature
lithium iron disulphide batteries in its battery grip. My other mirror-less camera could only take one  standard lithium ion rechargeable battery.

The charter flight operator imposed a 16kg checked bag limit and 6.5kg carry-on. This made life very difficult.  My suitcase is strong but weighs 4kg. That left me with 12kg for the contents.  The tour company advised us to bring a lightweight nylon bag but this was not going to protect equipment sufficiently. Every item was carefully considered before it went in the case.  We flew in over the sea ice. From the plane, it looked like the sea ice were tessellated tiles, covering the Arctic Ocean in great floating terraces.  

We lined up for approach. The pilot warned us that the landing might be rough.  The runway was solid ice and only 2300m long. Our 737-800 had 195 seats, 25 more passengers than a normally fitted out aircraft of this type.  The touchdown was gentle enough. With the runway being solid ice, the pilot used a hard reverse thrust to bring the plane to a screeching halt. The plane was hot and stuffy. On the flight, I was wearing a tee shirt and track pants and carrying my freezer suit in lieu of a jacket.  No room to change on the plane so I disembarked in the tee shirt. It was -12oC on the tarmac. As the icy wind hit me, I felt that same feeling I used to get when ski touring. Ahhh, alive again!

Inside the terminal I slipped into my warm suit and we headed out to the bus that transported us to our accommodation, the old miners barracks now trading as the Spitzbergen Guesthouse.  After getting our luggage to our rooms and a quick dinner,  we went outside to meet a snow cat to take us ice caving. No rest for the wicked! Several kilometres up the Longyearbyen glacier, we pulled up outside an igloo.  Inside the igloo we kitted up with safety helmets, lamps and crampons. After climbing down a 6m vertical ladder, we found ourselves in a melt water channel with spectacular ice formations that we explored for the next few hours.  Two pictures below. A whole slide show of the ice cave can be viewed in a new window by clicking here.  Close the window to return here.

Meltwater channel in Longyearbyen Glacier

Day two broke with blue skies and light misty low level clouds cloaking the mountains. Weather forecast for eclipse day just kept getting better and better.  Our accommodation was at the top of the valley about 3km from the waterfront.  We took a long walk to town. The morning was cold;  fifteen below zero. Because we were walking,  I didn't wear my freezer suit, just a couple of layers.  This was a bit blasé and I got a bit cold so we visited Fruene coffee shop in the "mall." After a welcome and very good cup of coffee we walked along the waterfront.  A strong breeze was cutting through us like a knife, and so we began the 3km uphill walk back to the guesthouse to warm up.  

Above: Mountains on the opposite side of Adventfjorden to Longyearbyen.
Below : Frulene coffee shop.


We also took one of the popular snow mobile tours across the island. It took about an hour to kit up with warm suits, mitts, helmets and boots and listen to safety briefings. Finally we were outside and ready to head out.  I was driving and my mate Bengt was my pillion passenger.  We were all dressed the same and on the same model snowmobile looked like a bunch of henchmen out to hunt down and assassinate James Bond.   I immediately noticed that on the chopped up and rutted ice, these vehicles were not that easy to handle.  At one point, traversing a gentle slope, I hit a bump and suddenly we were up on one skid on our way to tipping over. I hung my weight out and brought it back down. Bengt gave me two taps on the arm as if to say, "wake up stupid."  I seemed to be the only person having this problem and wondered if i was doing something wrong or if there was something wrong with the vehicle.  After a few hours of touring, I was less insecure.  In the intervening period, three snow mobiles rolled and two crashed into each other.  Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt. At some of the rest stops I spoke to others who admitted they were not finding them easy to handle. On virgin snow, I think these things would be great fun. On the hard packed highly used tracks to Tempelfjorden, they were less fun and more of a means of transport. Nonetheless they are a very capable vehicle that transported us to some fantastic scenery pictured below.  


Images taken during a 160km/ 8hr snowmobile tour to Tempelfjorden
Eclipse Day

On eclipse morning, I went to the observing site 2hrs before first contact. The sky was almost completely clear save a few clouds out to sea low on the west horizon. The air was a crisp -16
oC and burnt the
nose with each breath.  My clothing worked very well.  I felt very warm, even hot at times while others around me were jogging on the spot trying to keep warm. 

I set up the Losmandy Starlapse system.  I had done what little tool assembly was required in the warmth of my hotel room the previous day. Fortunately, assembling the system only required dovetails and finger tightening.  It only took a few minutes to complete.  I used my polar alignment jig to align the polar axis.  The jig enabled me to polar align the mount good enough for solar eclipse photography in about 1-2 minutes.

About 15mins before first contact, I installed batteries in the two cameras. The K-01 mirror-less camera is powered by a single internal D-Li-90 battery & internally programmed to shoot a wide-angle time lapse of 770 discreet fish-eye frames at 1 frame per 2s over 25 minutes starting 8 minutes before totality.  

The K-5 was powered by one internal D-Li-90 lithium ion rechargeable battery and 6x AA size, Li Fe S2 non-recharge batteries in a battery grip.

The K-5 has a 5-frame per second drive, and 3 or 5 step bracket. I set the bracket to 2ev per step and 5 steps giving a ten-stop range.  I can do this completely by touch without looking at the camera or telescope so that I can visually enjoy the entire eclipse. On installing the batteries and powering up, I noted that the LCD displays were responding very 
slowly due to the cold.  
The K-01 with a wide-angle lens was set up to capture time-lapse, the other was attached to the prime focus of a 70mm f6 refractor. I started the time-lapse 8 minutes before totality and left it ticking away. More detail about this on the tech page. 
Hard to tell under the Michelin Man suit but the glowing ball of yellow is me setting up the Losmandy Starlapse system at the eclipse site. I'm using the ultralight tripod from my older lightweight mount,  a 78.5 degree homemade equatorial wedge and the Losmandy Starlapse head. I brought two pieces of lightweight insulating closed cell foam mat. One to stop the tripod legs slipping if we were on ice, the other for me.  This turned out to be a very wise move.  The mat gave me protection from the -20oC ground. At one stage, I knelt briefly of bare snow,  my knee started to burn with frostbite immediately. 
By the start of totality, the temperature was on its descent from -16oC to -22oC (measured at a weather station on site). Other thermometers around the site indicated a variety of temperatures to -30 C. The liquid crystal displays were exhibiting significant time lag. This proved problematic. I usually use live view to focus but the time lag made this method basically ineffective. As totality rapidly approached, I had to switch to visual focusing.  The focuser was shifting quite a lot each time I tried to lock it and I did not manage to sharply focus the image. This was not normal behaviour for this focuser and I assumed it was some shrinkage issue associated with the cold.  Annoying but one of the many problems these conditions presented.  
.......   ..... 
Armed guards patrolled the site perimeter to guard against possible attacks by polar bears. What a way to go!  A small group observe the eclipse from this hot air balloon that launched from Adventdalen Glacier near our observing site.

Although my prime focus exposure sequence procedure uses auto-bracketing, I do have to change the base shutter speed 4 times down and then 4 times up during the eclipse to cover all shutter speeds I want. This results in substantial repetition of exposures giving me plenty of data to average for noise reduction or use in other ways. I do this by feel, counting two clicks (2x0.5eV) per 1 stop of shutter speed change without the need to look at the camera.  Each bracketing sequence takes about 1 second until the exposures become so long that the cumulative exposure length exceed the 5fps frame rate or the buffer fills up. I only have to do 4 double clicks with two 5 frame bursts for each. Explained in detail on the tech page.

Shadow bands were clearly visible dancing on the pearly white snow for many seconds before totality.  The layer of white snow on the ground provided an ideal surface on which to observe those shadow bands.  The crescent thinned to a sliver, Baily’s beads appeared then faded as a spectacular long lasting diamond ring formed.

Here comes the shadow! View the whole wide field totality flash slide show.
Opens in a new window. Close window to return here. The intrusion on the left is the solar filter on my refractor.


Diamond ring at the beginning of totality

Many seconds before totality,  I could clearly see the chromosphere and inner corona on the other limb of the sun to the thinning solar crescent. I don't time these things but it seemed  earlier than at previous eclipses. This was probably due to a lack of flare and scattered light due to the crystal clear Arctic air.

The diamond ring also seemed to last a relatively long time. I am reluctant to place too much weight on this observation without timings.  Time perception during a total eclipse is notoriously inaccurate. Jay Anderson quoted someone as saying that "all total solar eclipses last 8 seconds." The diamond ring eventually faded and the corona expanded as my eyes adapted to the low light levels eyes.  It was strongly asymmetric making it look as though it was “windblown” to one
side with the wind coming from the southeast extending the corona to the northwest.  It was a typical corona for a solar cycle transitioning towards minimum. The grand display ended with a dazzling diamond ring and more shadow bands.  It was a stunning eclipse in a magical setting.  Even though my gloves were thin, I removed my right glove just before totality for extra dexterity to adjust the shutter speed dial.  During that three minutes, I felt my fingertips freezing and burning with frost bite. I wrapped my fingers into my warm palms every chance in between exposure adjustments. No great harm done, I felt some discomfort for a few days but no reddening or whitening of the skin nor any permanent damage.  

The mountains hid the reddish sky that I was sure was below the eclipse. Some orange hues could be seen out to sea in the west.  
Looking around, the landscape was strangely monochromatic. Steely grey blues and greys predominated. This suited the temperatures which I later learned fell to -22oC. It was an incredible experience.  Meanwhile my fingers kept adjusting and snapping the telephoto sequence almost without thought.  It was a procedure that I knew well after having practiced and performed it many times at previous eclipses.  I don't even need to practice it any more.  I did glance at the camera and noticed that the display was malfunctioning.  No problem, I had the shutter speed ranges in my head. Hopefully it was just a display and not part of a feedback loop so its operation was not required.  

A stunning totality and it was clear!  Despite the daunting weather prospects, we woke to slightly cloudy skies that quickly cleared giving us a memorable view of the eclipse with long diamond rings, dramatic shadow bands, and a stunning corona.  Solar north is up and tilted 23o to the right. Note the structure typical of a developing
solar minimum, fine polar brushes and bigger broader equatorial coronal streamers. This corona composite is a radial composite composed of 15 different exposures used for the underlying radial composite then many extra images used to fill in details and voids. Radial composite image exposures taken with 70mm f6 APO refractor, Pentax K5, ISO100, 1/4000s – 1/4s at 1 stop intervals. 

A Larson-Sekanina filter with 1o rotations  applied in Adobe Photoshop CS3. This was primarily to recover detail lost by poor focusing. The Crayford focuser was not behaving in the cold possibly due to shrinkage. It became slightly loose so that the locking screw caused focus shift. Some smart sharpening and some layer blending was then applied to complete this composite. The star 1 solar diameter from the limb at the 2 o'clock position is HIP117887, a magnitude 5.75 star. 

Wide-field view seconds after totality began. The edge of the umbra can be seen just to the left of the eclipsed sun where the sky transitions from dark to light.

Diamond ring at the end of totality

Totality, as always, ended with a dazzling and long lasting diamond ring. The diamond ring at 3rd contact always seems brighter than the diamond ring at 2nd contact because it explodes into the observer's dark adapted eyes. There were more shadow bands and cheers from the gathered crowd. After the eclipse, many complained that they had not obtained any photos due to battery failure or because the LCD displays on their cameras froze completely. We later discovered that the air temperature dropped to -22oC during totality. My displays slowed but never stopped and my batteries worked well. I was grateful that my extra preparations had paid off. In the final analysis, it’s the experience not the photographs that matter. Even for those whose cameras failed, they were still there to witness this spectacular natural event in a spectacular location under beautiful clear skies.

Slide shows and other material
Links to other activities -
Slide shows open in new windows. Close windows to return.

Aurora observing  Saturday March 14 - Kvaløya  
[Flash Slide show]
Aurora observing Monday March 16 - Kvaløya
[Flash Slide Show]
Wide angle time lapse of totality
[Flash slide show]

Ice caving in a Longyearbyen Glacier melt water channel  
[Flash Slide show]

Snow mobile tour to Tempelfjorden
[Flash Slide Show]

Technical descriptions of equipment, cold weather preparations, performance of equipment in cold conditions.