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.
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.