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The day Svalbard stood still

A beautiful light spread out over Longyearbyen and the Arctic wilderness during the total eclipse. FOTO: Tommy Dahl Markussen / Svalbardpictures

The day Svalbard stood still

And watched a perfect eclipse.

For exactly two minutes and 24.7 seconds, Svalbard was at the center of the solar system – at least for the thousands of people who witnessed the spectacular phenomenon from the archipelago.

It happened precisely as predicted. Ten minutes and 42 seconds after 11 a.m., the sun, moon and Longyearbyen aligned in a straight line. Adventdalen suddenly filled with darkness from the cosmic shadow, while a strange, silvery light flickered across the snow and played tricks with shadows.

"I cannot believe it. I cannot believe it. We are standing in the Arctic and there is a total solar eclipse," said Richard Patching, a Canadian visitor well into the distribution of celebratory champaign only a few minutes later.

"We bought too cheap a champagne," said Kathy Biersdorff, his wife.

"But I need another glass."

Cosmic coincidence

Some responded with cheers. Others with silence. Some shed tears, some laughed and some did both. The moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, but it is 400 times closer to Earth. That cosmic coincidence allows them to fit perfectly over one another

"Diamond ring! Diaaaamond ring!" a group of enthusiastic Japanese visitors shouted as the last solar rays were concentrated between mountains and valleys on the moon. The resulting flare of light gave the impression of a diamond ring in the sky.

Then the valley descended into a short, but strange night.

The corona, the outermost part of the suns atmosphere, rose up like a glowing wreath. The ghostly light was reflected from Svalbard's white-clad mountains and tundra, while a magical feeling settled over the valley.

In east and west, where the rest of the world lay outside the shadow of the moon, the horizons glowed in warm orange and red.

"I still haven't landed yet," said Håkon Dahle, a researcher at the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo who has seen one previous total solar eclipse.

"The euphoria is still lingering," he said. "Even if I compare it with the wildest hopes I had beforehand, this was even better."

'Best solar eclipse'

Similar exclamations were plentiful, even among the many hardened eclipse hunters who spent several years of planning and huge sums of money for those few precious seconds.

"I have seen 11 total solar eclipses," Patching said. "All have been good, but this was the best."

"I've seen eight," said Lloyd Franklin, visiting from Washington, D.C. "With this landscape as a backdrop, it is one of the most beautiful."

Had 'everything'

Pål Brekke, a solar physicist at The University Centre in Svalbard and Norwegian Space Center, also said he was overwhelmed.

"This was one of the finest moments I've had in my life," he said. "The weather and the setting was fantastic. Absolutely magical. And it made as great an impression experiencing it with other people, and seeing how they were spellbound. Even locals, who previously thought that 'it is certainly fine to be able to see it ourselves,' say it exceeded all expectations."

The event, Brekke said, had "everything" an eclipse can and should have. The sun's low location and the cold, dry air made the corona exceptionally sharp and lovely. The diamond ring effect was brilliant and small, purple beads along the edge revealed the solar chromosphere.

Many noted in particular the strange light that danced over the ground during the minutes before and after totality. They caused a rare phenomenon that rarely occurs so clearly and beautifully.

"These are called shadow bands and it was completely insane," said Brekke, comparing the sight with the light that can be seen at the bottom of a swimming pool. "Very few have ever seen them as clearly as now. They are caused when the light is reflected in the atmosphere."

"People usually tend to lay out white sheets to see them during solar eclipses, but here we were on the world's largest sheet," he said.

The only natural phenomenon that did not materialize was a daytime aurora.

"That would have been a bonus, but we are aiming to get that during the solar eclipse over Svalbard in 2061," Brekke said with a laugh.

Next chance

The perfect solar eclipse attracted attention globally, especially since Svalbard was the only inhabited area with clear skies and a total blackout of the sun.

If the internet is any indicator, it will be far more crowded in Longyearbyen when the next eclipse occurs in 46 years. At press time, the newly created Facebook event "Solar Eclipse 2061" had more than 50,000 registrants hoping to still be alive and witness the "century event."

"I'm 72 that year," one woman wrote. "Then I'll simply invest in a walker with winter tires and I'm in!"

Se bildet større

The diamond ring effect that appears in the minutes before and after totality. FOTO: Linda Bakken

Se bildet større

Solar physicist Pål Brekke at Unis says the eclipse was one of best moments in his life. FOTO: Geir Barstein

Se bildet større

The partial phase of the eclipse, as seen through a pair of binoculars. FOTO: Geir Barstein

Se bildet større

Media from all around the world descended on Svalbard to cover the event. FOTO: Geir Barstein

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