Sunday, September 21, 2008


The "official" sunrise doesn't happen until about 3am Tuesday morning, but because the sun is so big and the atmosphere bends the light, its top edge crosses the horizon a day or two earlier than that. Most of the past week has been overcast and windy, but last night things finally cleared, and we got our first view of the sun itself in over 6 months.
After 6 months without, the sun is an odd sight on the horizon, and seeing it a bit of a watershed moment. The galley filled up fairly quickly with gawkers, lining the windows and staring at the strange glow peeking out from behind the blowing snow. Yes, staring, and yes, at the sun. That's not really the doctor recommended way of viewing it, but there was simply no way to dissuade us - poor sun-starved polies that we are - from seeing it. (For the record, it was mostly obscured by clouds, just peeking over the horizon, and the galley windows are heavily tinted anyway. It hurt to look at, but more like a 60W lightbulb hurts to look at, not like the fully risen blinding sun.)

Binoculars were gathered and passed around, and because we didn't know any better, started staring at the sun through them. From beside, you could see people's eyes were alight with the sun, glowing in a slightly unsettling way, as their pupils struggled to contract after months of lazy inaction.

There's a fairly large telescope at one end of the galley, and after everyone's eyes were sufficiently exhausted and sore from looking at the sun directly, we realized it would be much simpler to just project the sun onto a piece of paper, through the telescope. That gave a fairly nice image, and we even caught some fringes of green and blue at the edges.

Those fringes are really the highlight of a South Pole sunrise or sunset. The atmosphere bends the different wavelengths (colors) of sunlight very slightly differently, giving a near invisible fringe of green to the top of the orb. Ordinarily, it's far to faint to see right next to the full brightness of the sun, but at sunset, very rarely, the sun will be obscured enough that for the last moment before it disappears completely, you can make a faint green band.

In the real world, this "green flash" lasts only for an instant, and is rare enough that it has become somewhat mythologized. Jules Verne once described it as "a green which no artist could ever obtain on his palette, a green of which neither the varied tints of vegetation nor the shades of the most limpid sea could ever produce the like! If there is a green in Paradise, it cannot be but of this shade, which most surely is the true green of Hope." A little over the top, but you get the idea.

Well, down here, instead of a 1/2 second long green flash in the best of circumstances, we get about 5 hours of it in middling weather. We missed it to a storm at sundown, but last night's weather qualified, and through the above mentioned binoculars and telescope, we were able to make out the dancing green and even blue edges on the top of the sun. I didn't bring a zoom lens up to the task, but was able to get a few photos where the green is at least present.

It's a strange sensation to see the sun again after 6 months without it. Not as strange as having its light back, but still a little odd. It feels a bit like I just found a long lost toy from my childhood, a companion from years ago. I wonder if I'll get that every morning when I hit the real world...


michelle said...

I cannot but think that one would be non other than deeply affected.

Experiencing the dawning of a new day causes the soul to pause and reflect upon creation and all of it's beauty.

Teacher said...

Is there an official time? My studnets are craving the info.

Turtle in Albuquerque
See our project at:

Hallie said...

"we realized it would be much simpler to just project the sun onto a piece of paper, through the telescope."

Ha ha! Science geeks.

Kennie said...

Hi Keith, I found your blog through a friend... and I am quite envious of your experiences down "south". I'm way up North not too far from the North pole (well.. about 1300km from it) and we are moving into our dark season now (so winter for us, summer for you - in a way I guess we are sending the sun down to you - lol). I'm enjoying reading about your experiences and the amazing pics. Thanks for doing this for everyone!