March 21, 2015
(Click on the photos to enlarge. Highly recommended.)
It’s hard to say anything could be better than a total eclipse, but last night came close. Finally saw some aurora borealis late last night on the 3rd night of trying to see them (it?). To say it was spectacular is vastly understating the experience. I’m sure it was the most exciting thing I’ve seen since the eclipse 12 hours earlier. The viewing is about 6 miles outside of Longyearbyen in the Advent Valley at Camp Barentz, named after Willem Barents, the ‘official’ discoverer of Spitsbergen, which is the island we are on. We are close to the dog sled compound and the eclipse viewing site. There are some quaint huts used for dinning and entertaining, and I think our dinner is there tonight.
Leaving the Friday night dinner at the Kulturhuset, the local culture house, to get on the buses back to the hotel so we could catch another bus to Camp Barentz, we looked up and saw a green shimmering streak through the sky. It was an aurora streamer. It was pretty bright to be seen under the glare of the building lights and I was hoping there would be more later. The sky was super clear and it was nice to see stars out. Jupiter was moderately high in the south. Even at 10:30pm there was a slight glow on the horizon from the sun, which never dips very low at this time of the year.
They build a fire inside the huts at Camp Barentz and serve coffee and tea. It’s generally very crowded and humid, so I stay outside looking at the sky and trying to stay warm. After 11pm there was a faint glow of green in the south, and vertical shafts of light grew from the horizon. You expect some sort of sound to happen, but the lights are just solar plasma ejected from the sun and interacting with the earth’s magnetic field. And there was lots of interaction last night. Suddenly the green lights grew up until they were high in the sky and formed the shape of a curtain, waving. Light would appear in the south-east or south-west, but mostly towards the south. Several curtains would appear and disappear eliciting oohhs and aahs from the crowd. It was astonishing to see how transparent they looked and almost solid at the same time. Bright stars and Jupiter could be seen through them. The aurora crept higher in the sky until there was a burst of light directly above us. A woman shouted, “Mum, look above you!” We all craned our necks to see, the width of the aurora past our peripheral vision. I tiled the camera back to try and keep up with the lights. For a second I debated changing to the fisheye lens which would have taken in the whole sky, and taken a lot of time to do in the cold. But I stuck with the super wide angle lens, and kept shooting the dancing lights. This seemed like the grand finale for the evening. About 12:30am our polar bear guard said the bus waiting would be the last back to the hotels. By then the sky had quieted down and the group was buzzing with excitement over what we saw.