Experiencing a Solar Eclipse Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Experiencing a Solar Eclipse

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According to scientists at NASA, this morning's unprecedented solar eclipse is no cause for alarm...
- Flash Gordon, the 1980 Film

One of the most spectacular natural phenomena that can be experienced is a Total Solar Eclipse, which occurs when the Sun is completely obscured by the Moon. The phenomenon is caused by perfect positioning, as the Moon appears to be exactly the same size as the Sun.

We are living at the only time in history when the Sun and the Moon appear the same size in the sky. In the past the Moon was closer to the Earth and appeared bigger than the Sun, which meant that solar eclipses were more common. In the future as the Moon moves away from the Earth it will appear smaller than the Sun and total solar eclipses will no longer be possible. Eventually the cosmic coincidence that the Sun and Moon appear the same size from the Earth will end and there will be no more total eclipses, just annular eclipses.

It is amazing how the Moon is so perfectly positioned from both the Earth and the Sun to create an eclipse.

Important Safety Information

Be aware – viewing eclipses can damage your eyes. Looking at the Sun directly should not be attempted. Looking at the Sun through binoculars or a telescope can cause permanent blindness. It is also best to avoid looking at the Sun for long periods using sunglasses, through a camera viewfinder or with the naked eye.

It is possible to purchase readily available special shades for use when viewing an eclipse – it is worth considering investing in a good pair rather than relying on ones given away free with a newspaper. Also ensure that the dark lenses are not scratched or damaged in any way before use.

August 1999 Eclipse

One of the most viewed eclipses ever was the one that took place on 11 August, 1999. Totality was experienced in parts of England, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. Neighbouring countries experienced the phenomenal eclipse to varying extents.

Many h2g2 Researchers have shared their experiences of this unparalleled day. So what can someone witnessing a solar eclipse expect based on these remembrances?

On the Isle of Wight we had over 99% totality. My then-girlfriend (now wife) and I took the day off work and drove down to Blackgang Chine, the southernmost point of the Island, around 9am. At the theme park we bought eclipse glasses, and we could already see the Moon and the Sun not too far from each other in the sky. We climbed the hill to the Pepper Pot on the top of St Catherine's Down, 290 metres above sea-level, and it was quite a climb - fewer than 75 people made it to the mediæval lighthouse at the top by the time of the eclipse. From the top we could see the sea curve round to the west, south and east. Looking west, we could see a line of darkness steadily approaching along the shore.

It was quite sunny on the Island, but looking out to sea, we could see the darkness approaching. A few people had telescopes, etc, with various devices attached to monitor the eclipse while the Moon gradually crept over the Sun. We could see the approaching line dividing the darkness and light out to sea, and we could see that where the Sun was up above, there was only the black darkness of the Moon.

When the Sun was completely eclipsed, we could see that the Sun was no longer visible, it looked like a hole in the sky - just a very black circle in the middle of a dark, night-like area. Although I could still see bright daylight out at sea, there was none where I was. Nothing - just total darkness.

After the eclipse had finished we headed home and watched the live programme hosted by Sir Patrick Moore, as we'd put the video on timer before we left. I still have the VHS cassette, which I've kept as a lasting memento of the day.

Darkness

Perhaps not unexpectedly, a recurring theme was that of darkness.

I was in Devon for totality in 1999. It went completely dark, and it did so faster than my eyes could adjust to keep up with it.

The darkness was not only in the sky, but also included the shadow on the ground.

It was an amazing experience - though we were clouded out just five minutes before totality. I remember being stunned by the rushing shadow swooping over the Earth. It was my daughter's 6th birthday the next day.

Another person agreed, saying:

The darkness and silence were very eerie. Not night-time dark, or even twilight dark, just strange. No wonder our forebears were in awe/terror of them.
Strangely when the Moon covered around 97ish% of the Sun, I remember it seemed more impressive than when it reached 99%.

That said, the region of darkness did not affect everyone.

I watched the 1999 eclipse from Rosslare, which is only about 90 miles from the area of totality. We had a 97% eclipse. It felt strangely dim, but not at all dark.

Yet others found the whole experience profoundly moving.

I remember the sight as totality shifted there was something akin to a sunset out at sea, but no Sun setting, just lots of orangy-reddish light on the horizon. Sometime later I took a course which included Kant's critique of judgement, the sublime in art and reality, something beautiful and terrifying but not fearful. I often think back to that sight of the shadow approaching from the sea as my memory of a sublime moment.

Coldness

Accompanying the darkness, and even instead of it, a severe temperature drop was often noticed. Three Researchers have commented on this:

No-one told us to expect the cold. When the eclipse came over us, the whole area just froze. It became freezing cold – numbing cold, the cold where you cannot feel any part of your body. My arm froze, and I wasn't able to move it fully again until about 45 minutes after. The people around were freezing, and on a sunny summer's day. Then, when the eclipse ended, there was a cacophony of bird noise as the Earth warmed up.

The complete cold was scary. Did I mention that my hand froze and I couldn't move my fingers? It was that cold. We had taken a thermos of tea, but that had been long gulped down. Well, we were freezing with coffee up a hill and about 1½ miles away from our car, so we didn't really have much choice but freeze. It was definitely worth it, though, for the memory alone.

One Researcher remembers the cold more than the darkness.

I watched the eclipse of '99 from Arran. I don't recall it going totally dark but it did get noticeably colder and all the birds stopped singing.
It was the cold that no-one had warned about. At the festival I usually spend the ten days in t-shirts, shorts and sandals (it was a Folk Festival after all) but we all wished we'd bought something warm to wear. It passed fairly quickly, quicker than I thought, and then the gulls and sparrows started singing and shrieking as hard as they could. Maybe they were also freaked out.

Silence

Another recurring phenomenon experienced was one of silence. All around the world, birds stopped singing during the eclipse, and even manmade noise stopped as the Moon blotted out the sun.

All the birds stopped singing, and all traffic noises stopped too, as everyone in Ireland stopped what they were doing to watch the eclipse.
It was really a strange atmosphere, not only the birds but also all the insects were quiet.
I remember the chill, the darkness, the quiet and the beauty of it all.
We were at home for the 1999 eclipse, which was total in our area. Unlike many surrounding areas, we had a clear sky and we just had to lay on the grass and watch. It certainly was eerie when the birds stopped singing.

Location, Location, Location

When seeing an eclipse, many Researchers tried to find the perfect spot. This usually involved an area that would experience totality. In England in 1999, this was limited to parts of Cornwall and Devon. Other Researchers went for other approaches, choosing to witness it in places that held meaning for them, or wherever they happened to be at the time.

In summer 1999 I was a teenager and my parents were on holidays. Some friends and I went out to the fields with our bicycles and we were sitting on hay bales while watching the eclipse. We all had these glasses they sold or which came for free in newspapers... I seem to be one of the few people who was almost alone during the eclipse. There were many people gathering in town squares and such here [in Austria], but we were all alone in the fields.

Another Researcher was also on the continent:

I'd gone to France particularly to see the eclipse in '99, and had worked out exactly where we were going to watch it from (a Total service station, appropriately enough!)

Another Researcher remembers:

I watched the 1999 eclipse from the top of a hill in a village near my parents', with my Aunt who was visiting for a few days. We were right in the 'total eclipse' zone. That village has an astronomy club, and they had organised a bit of a fair, with an exhibition about eclipses and other sky-related phenomena, a barbecue, and fun stuff for the children.

I remember we got there pretty early in the morning, and that the first people we spoke to were a Belgian couple who asked us where they could get sandwiches for lunch. I remember it was cloudy, until the very start of the eclipse, when the clouds seemed to vanish. I remember a group of people with a guitar singing 'Stand by Me', during the whole of the 'total' phase (and that song has always reminded me of that day ever since).

In some areas, viewing the eclipse was a communal experience.

I was at a Folk Festival in Broadstairs, so there was a real carnival atmosphere, with a procession of assorted dancers, musicians and 'New Age' types along the promenade to the bandstand. It was there that a celebration was held as the Sun and Moon conjoined. The sky started clear but the closer the two got, there appeared to be broken, high cloud cover. I believe it is known as a mackerel sky.

The most popular locations to see the eclipse were parts of Devon and Cornwall. Our Researchers were there in force:

I saw the 1999 solar eclipse from near St Agnes in Cornwall. The morning was cloudy and we had more-or-less given up any idea of seeing the Sun disappear, but with ten minutes to go, a gap appeared and we had an excellent view of the eclipse whilst listening to the dismal broadcast of a fully overcast sky at Land's End on the radio.

The Sun itself (and the Moon of course) was spectacular. The odd feeling of such deep darkness arriving so quickly was memorable and I'm sure I got some impression of the movement of the edge of the umbra across the sea-scape to the north. Bearing in mind the actual speed the shadow moves though I remain to be convinced that this wasn't just an illusion or an artefact of the remaining thin clouds.

I went down to Devon to see the total eclipse in 1999. I think most went the day before. We made a weekend of it and saw it in Dartmouth. To my eternal disappointment it was cloudy of course so we didn't get to see totality properly. But we did get the sweeping darkness - street lights coming on - birds starting to sing as they clearly reacted to a false dawn/evening. Even without being able to see the full black disc surrounded by the halo it was still a phenomenal thing to see and I'm glad I got myself into the full totality zone. It could have been much worse, the Sun was cloud-covered the whole time but was visible until only a few minutes before the eclipse went total.

I remember seeing the news afterwards and at St Michael's Mount in Cornwall it was full on heavy overcast with torrential rain. At least we didn't get that. A truly marvellous experience.

I saw the '99 eclipse from Plymouth Hoe; travelled down especially to be in the totality. As I recall the view was spoilt somewhat by cloud rolling in, but I shall never forget the sight of the shadow arriving from the sea, rolling over several of the outer-lying islands and then racing overhead and whomph, someone turned out the lights.

There was a major drawback to being in the most popular location:

The traffic jams on the way home were the worst I've EVER seen. We were not alone in travelling down there for the total eclipse methinks...

Of course there are always uninterested people serendipitously in the right place at the right time.

One thing that annoyed me was that a whole bunch of people who were completely uninterested in the whole thing were on a ferry to France and got treated to the full cloudless spectacle while those of us who'd planned to be there for the previous 20 years got cloud - but such is the way of things.

Perhaps the ultimate viewing location is not yet particularly practical to get to.

If you were on the Moon, you'd see the Earth eclipse the Sun far more often than we see the Moon eclipse the Sun. This is because the Earth is much bigger than the Moon, so it will blot out the Sun more often. Every time we see an eclipse of the Moon, someone on the Moon would see an eclipse of the Sun and vice versa.

Other Eclipses

Of course the 1999 eclipse is not the only one to have happened in our lifetime. Researchers have experienced many more. Not all solar eclipses are total. For instance one researcher said:

I saw the annular eclipse of 2012. That was a good year for sky-watching.

The Moon goes around the Earth in an ellipse (oval) rather than a circle. If an eclipse occurs when the Moon is at its furthest from the Earth, it will appear smaller than the Sun, and will blot out the middle of the Sun, leaving a 'ring of fire' around the Moon. This is called an 'annular eclipse'.

In Shanghai sometime between 1986 and 19891. I remember how pretty the shadows of the leaves looked just before it all went dark.

Another Researcher summarised the eclipses with:

Lunar eclipses are good, where the Sun is blocked from the Moon by the Earth that appears much larger than the Sun, and annular eclipses are good, but the best total eclipses are spectacular for the exactness of it.

Lunar Eclipse

Of course, there are lunar eclipses too, when the Earth's shadow covers the Moon. One Researcher remembers:

When camping I enjoy the simple pleasure of watching the slow evolution of the sky from night to night; making mental note of where the planets are, the phases of the Moon etc. One August down in Cornwall I was doing this and, as the Moon came to fullness I was reasonably certain where I would find it in the sky and how it would appear. On my way from the tent to the facilities late one evening I looked back to see the full Moon and it wasn't there! Of course, there was a total lunar eclipse, but I had to check on the web to be sure I wasn't going mad.

Another said:

I can remember my first lunar eclipse. I was at work in Chelsea and it had started by the time I left at 18.00. I was so engrossed I stood at the front of the bus watching it. When I got home I raced to my bedroom to set up my birding telescope and sat and watched it take place. No-one had warned me how long it would last. The sky had a strange red glow to it, and the Moon appeared orange, as I remember. I think the eclipse finally finished at 03.00 but I may be uncertain of that, it was about 20 years ago.

Eclipse Addiction

Another Researcher became addicted to eclipses. After experiencing the 1999 one:

I was determined to see another. I travelled to Iceland to see an annular eclipse in 2005 on my son's 12th birthday (too cloudy), and eventually to China in 2009. Which was just Fabulous - the Sky at Night crew were standing next to us.

Having eclipse-spotting down to a fine art they are already, in 2014, well on the way to planning on attending the next two eclipses:

I'm still tempted to try to get to the Faroe Islands next March, though the chances of cloud are high. And the American one in 2017 sweeps right across the country - we're thinking 'where it crosses Route 66' would be a cool viewing place.

This leads naturally to:

Preparation

What is the best way to prepare for such a cosmic event?

My Mum, being a primary school teacher, had told her pupils about it before they left for the summer holidays, so they wouldn't miss it and they could talk about it in September. About how it was really rare, and the next one visible from France would be in 2081. So one kid told my Mum: 'Oooh! I'll keep my eclipse glasses, then, because my great-grandma is 102, and in 2081 I'll be 90, so I'll get to see the next one too!... Errrm... You probably don't need to keep yours, though...'

So although some people plan these things well in advance, events do not always go according to plan, which is sometimes for the better.

I had first heard of the eclipse in 1993 when I was a member of the Vectis Astronomy Society, so I had been waiting for it for quite some time. I'd planned to go to Cornwall, but in the end could not afford to. I'm definitely glad I saw it from the Island - the weather reports from Cornwall looked terrible.

Eclipse Activities

Diagram showing a safe way to view an eclipse

There are many things you can do when witnessing an eclipse, even if you are in the penumbra, the region where the Sun is only partially covered by the Moon. For instance, why not make a projector out of a piece of cardboard with a pinhole in it, and focus the crescent Sun onto another piece of cardboard?

I remember going out from the office, and using a cardboard/pinhole projector too. Can't say which year! It was a partial eclipse, and it felt very odd - it was like wearing sunglasses somehow. Still sharp features and not the softening of light that you get in the evening or morning. There were a fair few clouds too, so when the clouds were thicker, you could look at the Sun disc with a chunk bitten out. And when it came out, we used the pinhole. I'm glad I saw it.

In the penumbra you can still see an eerie lighting effect with the Sun mostly hidden.

We had a 97% eclipse... I remember using a telescope to project the image of the crescent Sun onto a sheet of white paper, then someone added a pair of eclipse glasses to make a smiley face, which we christened 'eclipsoman'!

Perhaps the most important thing to do during an eclipse is to listen to Richard Strauss' 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' or Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon, and after the eclipse has finished, why not watch 2001: A Space Odyssey?

General Advice

Suss out your viewing site well in advance, and have something to sit or lie on in comfort. One Researcher had slept in the car next to the beach before the eclipse, and their advice is to book a hotel well in advance, both before and after the eclipse – as traffic from the affected area immediately after may well be at a standstill.

Take a warm set of clothes (including gloves) and a large flask of tea - even in summer it can get cold surprisingly quickly.

I wouldn't rush next time, a full solar eclipse passes very quickly.

Another Researcher remembers:

What made the experience seem even more unreal was that I read Isaac Asimov's 'Nightfall' the night before. If you are eclipse mad, it's a must-read.

It is, of course, traditional to crack open something when the Sun reappears - bottle of bubbly, can of beer, anything.

Take The Day Off

Researchers all agreed that seeing an eclipse was more memorable than a standard day in the office:

I think I'd arrange a day off work. The 1999 eclipse wasn't great from Woking.
I saw the partial in 2006, virtually the whole building I was working in the time came out to catch it, although they left a skeleton staff in on the emergency numbers.
I took the day off work - okay, I bunked off, but it was only a summer tomato job.

Photography

Of course, in the modern day and age you can't go anywhere without seeing people trying to take a photo. It is actually really hard to properly photograph the eclipse itself - you need special equipment and lenses. But you can photograph people's reactions around you. The actual darkness is probably going to last less than six minutes, so just savour every very special second.

However one Researcher remembers attempting to snatch photos without looking directly at the Sun by holding the camera close to where they expected the eclipse to occur and then taking the photograph. Be aware that those around you may feel that the presence of cameras detract from the eclipse experience, as one Researcher noted:

I was surrounded by people using flash photography to record the moment which rather spoilt the mood as the blacked-out hills were outlined in a steady staccato popping of flash bulbs.

While another was amused:

I had a wry smile for all the people trying to take photographs using flash.

Perhaps it is best not to bother with cameras and just enjoy the experience?

Seeing a Solar Eclipse

Has this article inspired you and left you wanting to see the next one? Here is a list of upcoming total solar eclipses:

DateRegion Visible
20 March 2015North Atlantic, Faroe Islands and the North Pole
9 March 2016Indonesia
21 August 2017Parts of the mid- and west USA
2 July 2019central Argentina, Chile, the Tuamotus (French Polynesia), parts of the South Pacific Ocean

But of course there's no pleasing everyone.

I like lunar eclipses better and I've seen a few of those.

Image provided by NASA

1One took place on 23 September, 1987.

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