Getting to Greenland: Book Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from my book Out in the Cold, in which we arrive in Greenland and try to sort out what to do next. Enjoy it:

GETTING TO TASIILAQ

First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.

The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.

He does not know Robert.

Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”

•••••

Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.

You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk Airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.

We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on Earth.

We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.

A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze-dried food and powdered milk.

Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik Island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.

Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty-minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow-capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.

It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.

We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and goodwill, that Christian is here on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.

The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard and Christian takes the backpacker, Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that one, so we can take photos.

We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.

The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today, but overall they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.

Sled Dog Greeting at Tasiilaq

A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.

Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1,400 kilometers, on an 88-day journey. 

Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.

•••••

There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.

We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two-by-two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.

Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.

About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did as a fifteen year old.

What did they do?

They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.

Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.

•••••

Order the whole book here in the U.S. or from Amazon in your country.

Tasiilaq town

The approach to Tasiilaq from Iceland in high summer

Eclipse Book Excerpt 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

HOW DID WE DO?

I go back to around to visit people I had seen before. Two of them tell me they felt they held a privileged position in that they didn’t have to get here, and maybe that was why they hadn’t thought about it much, but it turned out it was something they never expected.

A lady selling wool sweaters in a tourist shop says she thought it would be darker. I suggest the majesty, noting that the width of the moon’s shadow is usually only about 160 kilometers (267 km at most), so isn’t it incredible that across the whole of the Earth, you should happen to find yourself exactly underneath it? And she nods, but still, to her it should have got darker.

The lady at the Apotek calls it unbelievable and magical. “And more than the eclipse, the light on the ground, everything.”

The airport lady: “Amazing. I didn’t think so much about it before.”

Downtown Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen is fast emptying out when I walk into the tourist office the day after, deserted but for two young women with expectant smiles. Might they help me?

I want to know if the tourist office feels we all behaved ourselves on their island and they think we did. The day before the eclipse there was a snowmobile accident. There had been some frostbite (but that was always). There was that one polar bear thing. It is illegal to shoot a polar bear. Shooting a polar bear who wants to eat your son is a better idea than obeying the law, obviously, but every incident requires “full … what? … research … investigation” as Sigrid, the snowmobile guide, put it.

Mark Sabbatini, editor of the local English language newspaper, tells me, “We had an arsonist which was the first time I’d ever seen that happen. I think it was last night or yesterday over on 222. All the streets here have numbers and 222 is a kinda busy residential area … there’s a whole bunch of homes, it’s kind of like suburban central … somebody went along there trying to start fires.”

In other European cities you can always try to stay warm in the train station. Maybe some didn’t think it through that there is no transport hub here to hide.

“We had a rash of people who came in Thursday night on the late flight, stayed up all night at pubs, didn’t have a place to stay. Pubs close down here about three or four at the latest, god knows what they did after that to stay warm until the sun came up, so they had folks going door to door basically knocking and begging to sleep on floors or hoping there was someone left their house unlocked and wasn’t home, just a bunch of folks came up here to prey upon the kindness of strangers. But nobody died….”

A lady from Greece tells me she paid $150 to sleep on a travel agency office floor the first night (“They threw down skins for us to sleep on”) and then $800 for a room without private bath on the night before the eclipse. We booked a year and a half out, but even then the Radisson SAS hotel (it’s a small Radisson) was bulk booked by a tour company. The rumor was that it had been booked in its entirety eight years out.

You mustn’t let the sunshine fool you. Days since our arrival have been sunny and if you can call -12 or -16C mild, then, mild, but the meteorological tide turns the day after the eclipse and with the sun obscured, in an Arctic, all blue way that makes the way people ambled up the main walkway the day before like leisure country rambles.

Today is all anonymity and purpose, heads wrapped, strides long and purposeful. Suddenly you see how, impossible as it seems, the last few days, with the hard frozen footpaths and the snowmobiles parked on the two-foot snowbank outside the window, were springtime for Svalbarders, a time to enjoy walking without mufflers wrapped up to their ear hats.

And it really must feel like some strange springtime, because at such a latitude as this, just in the time of our visit the length of the day increased from 11:54 to 13:10 – an extra hour and sixteen minutes of daylight in five days.

Which comports with the strangest single realization about this latitude, namely that scarcely five weeks since the first sunrise of the year (until 16 February the sun had been beneath the horizon, yet in the very first day that it rose, it didn’t just peep and retreat but stayed up for a full hour and forty minutes), already it never gets totally dark at night. Instead the sun skims a shallow enough path below the horizon to give the sky a twilight glow all night, ahead of – less than a month from now – 19 April, when the sun will stay up all day.

With the weather even better than way down in Oslo, we lull ourselves into believing Svalbard is just like home, it’s just way up north. Until the day after the eclipse. Snow falls all day long. Wind pounds the windows when they aren’t rattled by sleet. We wake with no agenda and ponder the standard inventory of kitchen utensils at the Svalbard Lodge, which includes among other things,

7 glasses

7 wine glasses

7 coffee cups (mugs from Ikea)

7 schnapps glasses

7 cognac glasses

Seven.

Svalbard Lodge doesn’t do coziness, the sense of well being expressed by the German gemütlich or the Danish hyggeligt, but it has one mighty heater, and today that goes a long way. We toast to eclipse success using two-sevenths of our supply of cognac glasses.

•••••

Eclipse Book Excerpt 5 of 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

MEANWHILE DOWN BELOW

As the eclipse approached Svalbard began to fret:

Svalbard eclipse prompts warnings

January 22, 2015

Authorities on Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard are bracing for an onslaught of tourists in connection with the solar eclipse on March 20. That’s prompted them to issue warnings to the public, in an effort to avoid over-capacity.

“Since Longyearbyen (the main settlement on Svalbard) is a small town, we can have problems when so many people gather,” the local sheriff wrote in the warning posted on Svalbard’s public sector website.

Tourism agency VisitSvalbard reported that all hotels and other forms of lodging have been fully booked for several years on and around March 20. Now authorities are warning that there also is limited capacity in Longyearbyen’s few local restaurants and cafés, that no warming tents will be available to ward off the chill of the Arctic night, and that anyone venturing outside the city limits of Longyearbyen must have protection against polar bears.

So worried were the authorities that the hospital didn’t schedule appointments in the days around the eclipse. The town laid in extra food supplies and with characteristic Norwegian efficiency, the Red Cross had tents up and ready.

All hotels sold out a year before and they reckoned island population would swell to 3,500 or 4,000, or maybe more if you account for those who rented vacation homes or friends who came to stay with friends.

On eclipse day a dozen charter and private flights flew in for the eclipse and then out the same day, and authorities worried that a weather change could prevent those same-day visitors from departing when the whole town was already full.

In the event, the weather didn’t change and Longyearbyen handled things with good humor. We all tramped up and down their normally sovereign daily paths, most people wearing appropriate gear, and I think, just five weeks since the first sunrise of the year, the clerks and barkeeps were mostly happy to see all the strangers.

Until the eclipse actually crossed the sky it seemed as if local people downplayed its significance. Maybe they just didn’t think about it much, mainly marveling at the arrival of visitors from far away. I think they thought we were nuts.

Some said they hadn’t planned anything special, or hadn’t given it much thought. Maybe they thought they already lived in a place of wonder. Mostly, I think, the few who stayed at work wished they had taken a day off.

•••••

Eclipse Book Excerpt 4 of 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

WONDER

I can think of only one phenomenon that compares with totality, and like this particular eclipse, it too is a product of high latitude extremes.

The northern lights, like a solar eclipse, get to something elusive in their essence, an elemental and spiritual thing. In each there is balance. The eclipse pulses raw, brute, human-diminishing power.

“Behind that moon is the SUN!”

Physical forces heave massive objects across the heavens, yet our awe derives from the delicacy of the thing, the wispy fit of the moon over the sun, the elegance of the ballet, the notion that this is impossible, but it is happening!

The eclipse is fiery anger. The aurora is fragile delight. It fills the sky. It is utterly spellbinding. It scales your body to tiny, but broadens your soul and calls you up into the sky. There is no brute here. The aurora is delicate, its airiness calling forth humility and awe. You fall mute in its silence, for if you shout you might break it.

It swells across the firmament and you feel small as a church mouse. A Cal Berkeley psychology professor named Dacher Keltner has demonstrated that awe makes people feel physically smaller than they really are. Nicolai Ceausescu and a long line of Communist architects intuited that. As did the builders of any of Europe’s grand cathedrals.

The Northern Lights’ grand size casts off human scale entirely. Awe. Wonder. Emotions from childhood. Innocent, wholesome, affirming. Wonder works outside what the philosopher Jesse Prinz calls the “drab world of appearances.”

The gods invite wonder. Prinz says we recruit the gods, and monsters, to explain the unknown. Wonder happens when something is utterly unique, when past experience doesn’t help. Wonder comes in the absence of any frame of reference. When the totality of a solar eclipse puts up its spectacle we are rightly and truly mystified. We are awed.

The moon moves silent through all its nights and days but at the actual moment, when my jaw is agape and all of the rules of this world are suspended and we are playing by the gods’ own rule book, I feel the moon rubbing across the sky and I think it should make a sound like twisting a balloon.

Right up until the moment of totality, the Earth is not dark.

Until the moment, …..

Until the moment, …………

The Moment We’ve Been Waiting For

The daytime sun gives warmth even in the Arctic, 800 miles from the North Pole. The eclipsed sun gives nothing. It is cold, and more, it is chilling, an alien body performing raw, clinical, huge-scale mathematical astronomics, throwing off flaming evidence of its anger, prominences seen only then, mighty violence on fleeting display. Once it is revealed you are frightened to have seen that it is so.

You have registered somewhere deep under the skin another alien, raw thing; the comforting life-giving sun was just five minutes ago an orange ring of flame surrounded by darkness, a fanged personality, no tulips and honeybees.

After the sharp escalation of sheer anticipation, a week of anxiety about the weather and the fusillade of emotion during the event, the diamond ring pops onto the disc of the moon and the thing is over. You remain quiet for a time, failing to quite absorb what you have seen, but more than seen, you have perceived.

And then you pack up and go, long before the moon has cleared the sun. The last half of an eclipse, between the third and fourth contacts, that is underrated. And under-attended.

I’ve always felt the clearing after a storm, a real tempest of a storm, is melancholy. The settling of atmospheric accounts that returns sunshine is the sort of thing better sorted out by the weather gods after dark than during the day.

The same after an eclipse. It takes some time for the Earth to settle back down from all that rambunctiousness.

Yet totality’s fleeting brevity demands that you return to see if you really saw what you thought you saw in those hurry-up! no slow down! seconds. So we will be back. In 2017 the shadow falls right across our farm back in the U.S.A.

Mirja and I stood on an icy fjord and saw vivid prominences at 11 and 9 o’clock, and the corona, even just the idea of the corona, sent chills. It always does. Then there were the literal chills. Retired meteorologist Jay Anderson, who runs an eclipse web site and watched the eclipse in Svalbard, measured a temperature drop from minus 16C to minus 22C at totality.

•••••

The Faroes didn’t fare so well. Anyone who has spent a day in Tórshavn will understand that it would depend on where you stood. Hamferð, a doom metal band, recorded a music video above the seaside village of Kvívík on which totality was clear. At the airport on Vagar, not ten miles from Kvívík, a man named Paul Deans told Sky and Telescope magazine, “the diamond ring through cloud (with iridescence) was amazing, and the prominences and corona were stunning.” Except that clouds rolled in before third contact, and five minutes later it was raining.

But from the air! The pilot of EasyJet flight 6747 from Belfast to Keflavik found himself north of Scotland and south of the Faroes at totality, and did four impromptu circles in the middle of the north Atlantic so delighted passengers on both sides of his Airbus could see totality.

More than a dozen charters jockeyed for the centerline, and by flying along with the umbra, pilots could stretch totality for their passengers. Pilots found their planes stacked 1,000 feet apart vertically by Iceland’s air traffic control, who had a more challenging than usual day, managing regular trans-Atlantic traffic at the same time.

•••••

Eclipse Excerpt 3 of 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

FIGURING OUT ECLIPSES

Besides being tiny bits of land surrounded by oceans, Svalbard and the west African island of Principe share vanishingly little, but just like the Solar Wind Sherpas are doing on Svalbard this week, a hardy team of British scientists set out a hundred years ago to made eclipse history on Principe.

On 8 March, 1919 Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington and his party sailed from Liverpool bound for the equator, and just north of there, on 23 April, landed in the Gulf of Guinea on a small, humid, buggy island around a hundred twenty miles west of the African coast.

Albert Einstein’s audacious 1915 theory of general relativity sorely needed testing. If it were proven right it would mean that space and time are pliable as the surface of a trampoline, twisting and bending all over the place.

Relativity predicted that light need not always travel straight, but rather should warp as it passes the gravitational field of an object in space, like the sun. But how to measure such a thing?

If light from stars behind the sun were bent by the sun’s gravitational field, those stars’ apparent position might be distorted so that they became visible. Their apparent position should be different from their position in the sky at night, when the sun is far away on the other side of the Earth.

But how to see behind the blinding light of the sun? Perhaps with the help of the moon, during an eclipse.

Two years after publication of Einstein’s theory, the British Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Watson Dyson worked out that during the eclipse of 29 May, 1919, the sun would cross the Hyades, a cluster of stars near enough that there would be a number of stars bright enough to see through a telescope, and that the island of Principe would be a fine place to watch it.

Dyson sent Eddington to test Einstein’s theory.

•••••

Scientific cooperation between countries waxes and wanes as surely as celestial bodies. Freed from Soviet restrictions, in the 1990s Russian scientists rushed to collaborate with their counterparts, eager to compare their science with the West. Some of that collegiality has since lessened.

Similarly, by 1919 the Great War had severed lines of scientific communication. A Russian mathematician knew of Einstein’s work but couldn’t participate from behind the walls of a German prison. A German astronomer couldn’t test the theory from his perch at a Russian prison camp. A naval blockade kept German scientific journals from crossing the English Channel. To Eddington that was plain wrong.

Eddington learned of Einstein’s work through a middleman mathematician in neutral Holland, whom Einstein could visit.

A British scientist’s aggressive work on the theories of a German physicist kicked up controversy, especially as Eddington, a Quaker, claimed conscientious objector status and needed the help of Dyson, his boss the Astronomer Royal, to stay out of jail. Packing Eddington off to do science on a remote island for several months was just the thing.

•••••

Eddington: “The baggage was brought … mainly by tram, but with a break of about a kilometer, where it had to be transported through the wood by native carriers.”

The party set up their viewing station at latitude one degree forty minutes north, using “freely” the “ample resources of labour and material” available locally.

Eddington noted that “Near the center” of this tiny six-by-ten mile island, “mountains rise to a height of 2,500 feet, which generally attract heavy masses of cloud.”

And so they did. “The days preceding the eclipse were very cloudy. On the morning of May 29 (eclipse day) there was a very heavy thunderstorm….”

But “about half-an-hour before totality the crescent sun (partial eclipse) was glimpsed occasionally.”

It would have been an awfully long trip to have come back empty, but in the end “16 (photographic) plates were obtained … by moving a cardboard screen unconnected with the instrument.”

Eddington compared a set of “true” positions of the stars – photos he had taken of the same patch of sky when the sun was nowhere around – with the set of photos he took during the eclipse. He could confirm Einstein’s theory.

•••••

The day after Eddington announced his findings, the New York Times of 10 November, 1919, ran these headlines:

LIGHTS ALL ASKEW IN THE HEAVENS

Men of Science More or Less

Agog Over Results of Eclipse

Observations.

__________

EINSTEIN THEORY TRIUMPHS

__________

Stars Not Where They Seemed

or Were Calculated to be,

but Nobody Need Worry.

•••••

Politics will forever hover over science. But in this case, right in the middle of the Great War, Arthur Eddington brought down barriers to advance the scientific standard, to explain Einstein’s theory and to spark the imagination of an otherwise war-distracted public.

As a bonus, the Eddington team saw the largest solar prominence to be seen at a total eclipse since. It extended some 100,000 kilometers beyond the surface of the sun.

Eclipse Excerpt 2 of 6

In anticipation of Monday’s total eclipse, this week we’ve got a series of excerpts from the Svalbard chapter of Out in the Cold, in which we traveled up to 800 miles from the North Pole in search of totality in March, 2015. Get a copy of the whole book for yourself, or order the unabridged audiobook.

MYTH

A great chariot carried the sun across the ancient Norse sky, and two wolves gave chase. Suppose they caught it? Some said that was when an eclipse occurred. In old French and German there are expressions like “God protect the moon from wolves.”

To Transylvanians, human failing caused the sun to shudder and turn away in disgust, covering herself with darkness. Putrid fogs gathered, poisonous dew fell from the sky and ghosts swarmed the earth. After an eclipse water and produce were thought contaminated and unsafe, even for livestock. The poisonous dew might bring plague.

Native Alaskans too believed eclipses sent something vile descending to earth. Whatever it was could cause sickness if it settled on cooking tools so women turned over their pots and hid the spoons underneath.

Into the nineteenth century humans would huddle indoors. If they had to go out they would cover their mouths and noses. All across the Carpathian mountains the more superstitious would even destroy clothing they’d left drying outdoors.

In the Faroe Islands 1954 eclipse “a woman named Erla Kirstin Viberg recalled her mother telling her to bring in the sheets from the clothesline so that they wouldn’t burn. ‘People were talking about total destruction,’” wrote Lavinia Greenlaw in The New Yorker.

Since they were accustomed to the sun disappearing for long stretches during the winter, it’s hard to say just how alarmed northern people became at the loss of the sun, but elsewhere people clanged and pounded on pots and pans, screamed, shouted and cried out to scare away whatever evil spirit had descended. The Chippewa shot fiery arrows into the sky hoping to rekindle the sun.

And whoever they were and whatever they did, in time the people were always successful. The demon always left the sun.

•••••

An often quoted statistic by laymen like we in Longyearbyen is the wonder-filled fact that total eclipses are possible only because the sun’s diameter is about 400 times that of the moon, while the moon is about 400 times closer to earth, allowing for the moon’s disk to just cover the sun’s. Consider the serendipity.

Further, we just happen to be here at the right moment in the cosmos.  The moon’s orbit drifts about four centimeters a year away from earth. Scientists have measured its retreat using tools left on the moon by the Apollo program. A billion years ago all eclipses entirely blotted out the sun, and in just fifty million years the moon will be too small when viewed from Earth to ever cover the sun. Even now it barely does. If the moon’s diameter were just 169 miles smaller total eclipses would be impossible.

•••••

Suppose that next Tuesday you wake up on the equator. Swinging in a hammock on the beach and turning with the earth, you will travel 24,901 miles that day, not counting the swinging.

Pull your calculator from your bathing suit, divide 24,901 by the length of a day, 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds, and you find that you and your hammock have been traveling 1,040 miles per hour.

Up here, more than the beachwear is different. At Longyearbyen the Earth’s circumference is just 5,101 miles. At 78 degrees north the Earth turns at a leisurely 215 miles per hour. The Central European time zone at Svalbard stretches just 212 miles. With the fastest car and a good road you could just about drive across the time zone before an hour was up and go back in time.

•••••

A legendary Welsh shepherd named Guto Nyth Bran was so fast that he could blow out a candle and be tucked into bed before the light faded. Like the shadow of the moon, he traveled faster than the fastest commercial jet. Except the Concorde.

The speed of the moon’s umbral shadow – the thing that causes totality – varies with the latitude at which it crosses Earth. It can move as slowly as 1,710 kilometers per hour, and Concorde’s maximum cruising speed was 2,200 kilometers per hour, which got scientists thinking. In 1973 a team aboard Corcorde flight 001 chased the moon’s shadow for an incredible 74 minutes of totality across Africa, besting by nearly ten times the maximum earthbound length of totality, which is about 7-1/2 minutes.

The Concorde didn’t go into passenger service until 1976, but in 1973 was in in-flight testing. Packed with gear from a British team headed by Dr. John Beckman with the Astrophysics Group at Queen Mary College, London, flight number 001 rose into the air for a rendezvous.

The pilot, André Turcat, and a crew of four were joined by seven astronomers, two assistants and a photographer for a mach 2.05, hour and fourteen minute totality like no other.

•••••

At the beginning of each lunar month we call the moon “new.” The sun, moon and Earth line up like you did in grade school, one behind the other. Out in space this happens every 29.5 days. Here on Earth the Gregorian calendar rules the business and legal world but the rhythm of the moon regulates more soulful realms like the Chinese and Vietnamese New Years, the Hindu Diwali festival, and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

At new moon the moon is between the Earth and the sun, so the sun shines on the side of the moon facing away from the Earth, and the moon is invisible to us, beginning its monthly cycle. The scientific word for this is syzygy, more a word I might connect with human reproduction, or questionable hygiene.

Eclipses occur in clusters. A bit of celestial mechanics shows why. The orbit of the moon is tilted about five degrees from the Earth’s orbit around the sun, so the plane of the moon’s path crosses the Earth’s twice a year on opposite sides of its orbit (called nodes), once ascending and once descending, in intervals of 30 to 37 days. This is when you see eclipses.

(Worthy digression: The moon doesn’t really orbit the Earth. They centrifugally pull each other around a common center of gravity roughly 3000 miles from the Earth’s center).

The orbits of the sun, Earth and moon don’t all sync up, so the sun crosses one of the moon’s nodes and returns to it every 346.62 days, not quite a year. As a result eclipse “seasons” march slightly backward across our Gregorian calendar, as does Ramadan, calculated by the 354 day lunar calendar.

Either the Chaldeans of Babylon were incredibly smart people, or there wasn’t much to do in Mesopotamia hundreds of years BCE. Studying the heavens, the Chaldeans determined that every 6,585.3 days the yearly cycle of the moon around the Earth around the sun repeats, and so every eighteen years ten days and eight hours (or 18 years 11 days eight hours, depending on some dense math about leap years) there occurs a very similar eclipse.

This discovery led to eclipses being grouped into families, each called a saros. Today there are 40 different saros series in progress. Our Svalbard eclipse belongs to saros 120.

For any two eclipses separated by one saros, the moon is nearly at the same position with respect to its node (that point at which the moon’s orbit crosses Earth’s orbit) and is also at almost the same distance from Earth. Not only that, the eclipse occurs at virtually the same time of year.

Saros series are not equal to a whole number of days (eighteen years ten days and eight hours). In those eight hours the earth rotates, so later eclipses are viewed by people a third of the globe away. The path for each successive eclipse in a saros series shifts about 120 degrees westward. Make your reservations for eighteen years from now accordingly.

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