Williams College Team Observes Solar Eclipse in Svalbard

Media contact: eclipse@williams.edu

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., March 20, 2015—Astronomer Jay Pasachoff, who observed today’s total solar eclipse at the top of the world at 78° north latitude in Svalbard, reports success of his expedition.  His team of 8 intrepid scientists from the United States, Greece, and Slovakia traveled to the Norwegian archipelago to study the sun’s outer atmosphere and the effect of the eclipse on Earth’s weather.  Pasachoff reports that “the weather was improbably–impossibly–wonderful, with a complete clear sky, much better than cloud statistics from weather satellites had led us to expect.”  The work was sponsored by a grant from the Committee for Research and Exploration of the National Geographic Society. For samples of images see: http://sites.williams.edu/iau-eclipses/svalbard-eclipse-2015/

Pasachoff, Chair and Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College, reports that “even though we are past the peak of the latest sunspot cycle, the corona still had the symmetrical shape of sunspot maximum.  Also, even a preliminary view of our spectral studies showed that the corona was still especially hot, averaging well over 2,000,000°F.”

The research team, and an accompanying tourist group of 40 people, observed from an open field about 1 mile east of the city of Longyearbyen, the 2000-person capital.  The temperature of 8°F at the onset of the eclipse dropped to –7°F at mid-totality.  Pasachoff is working with atmospheric physicist Marcos Peñaloza-Murillo of Venezuela in interpreting the effects of how the abrupt shut-off of solar radiation cools and shocks Earth’s atmosphere.  Williams College student Allison L. Carter ’16 not only took images of the partial phases and the corona with a Nikon digital camera mounted on a Tele Vue telescope but also set up measuring devices to record temperature and pressure every 30 seconds.

Pasachoff concludes that “NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft may not get to Pluto until July 14, but I think we have seen on Svalbard what they will find out Pluto’s surface is like, with similar sculptured, snow-covered mountains.”

Other scientists in the expedition included Ronald Dantowitz of the Clay Center Observatory in Brookline, Massachusetts; Vojtech Rusin of the Tatranska Lomnica Solar Observatory in Slovakia; Aristeidis Voulgaris and John Seiradakis of the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece; and Robert Lucas from Sydney, Australia. Amateur astronomer Michael Kentrianakis of New York City and eclipse map-maker Michael Zeiler were also part of the team.

The event was Pasachoff’s 61st solar eclipse and 32nd total solar eclipse.  “All the eclipse fans, some of whom will join us in Indonesia next March, are looking forward to the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse whose path of totality will sweep across the United States.”


Contact information for Jay Pasachoff: eclipse@williams.edu


Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.