I make it a point to know eclipse dates and locations well in advance. We eclipse chasers do that sort of thing. I knew about the eclipse in 2015 for at least a decade. I knew it would likely require a plane to see it, since nearly the entire path was over the North Atlantic and high Arctic. Only the Faeroe Islands and Svalbard were occupied land masses in the path.
With that in mind, we decided to book an eclipse flight out of Düsseldorf, with eclipse-reisen.de. I went with them last year to Uganda. They know me, and I can book the flight in German. We decided to tie the tour into a visit to Germany and to see Berlin, which I, as a child of the Cold War, had always wanted to see. We would also visit Dresden and then return to Düsseldorf, take a side visit to the Köln Church and then take the eclipse flight, before coming home. Eclipse trips allow one to see well-known places or not so well-known, depending upon the eclipse location.
Eclipses of the Sun must occur at least twice a year. If the alignment is right, and the Moon is close to us, we see a total eclipse. If the Moon is further away, but the alignment is right, we see a ring eclipse, with the Moon “inside” the Sun. With less than perfect alignment, we see a partial eclipse, like we did last October.
Take a flashlight, and turn it on in a dark room. There is a bright cone of light in the center. Outside of that, the cone of light is a little dimmer. Eclipses are the same with darkness. Be in the center of the shadow of the Moon, and it is dark. Outside the shadow, it is lighter. Without going into too many details, there are 40 eclipse families currently occurring every 18 years and 10 1/3 days. The Saros cycle, the word coined by Edmund Halley, is a corruption of an ancient Babylonian word, which meant about 3600 years. Ancient people understood the cycle. About a third of the families generate partial eclipses, another third annular, or ring eclipses, where a small amount of sunlight is visible, and the final third total. There are 13 total eclipses during this 18 year period. Each family is born, lives, and dies, with about 70-80 cycles over 1200 to 1500 years. The cycles themselves are a combination of 223 synodic lunar cycles (the familiar “month”), lining up of the Earth-Moon-Sun, 242 cycles, and the Moon’s being close enough to the Earth to cover the Sun, 239 cycles.’
I’m trying not to give too many details, but sometimes my enthusiasm slips out.
It’s a shame that my enthusiasm wasn’t present earlier in my life. On 20 July 1963, I canoed in Canada and missed a total eclipse, seeing 91% partial from Algonquin Park. Nearly 7 years later, I missed totality again, by not going to Nova Scotia, saw a 94% partial eclipse. Almost a decade later, I missed totality during the American-Canadian eclipse of 1979, skiing near Salt Lake City, seeing a 91% partial eclipse. Perhaps had I been aware of the fact this was the last total eclipse to strike the contiguous states for 38 years, I might have been more eager to drive to Montana to see it.
This most recent eclipse is a member of the same family that last brought the umbra of the Moon’s shadow over on America. Eighteen years and 10 or 11 1/3 days later (leap year, dateline and midnight considerations) this particular eclipse family repeated, same type of track, in this case the right side of a “U”, either north or south of the prior (this instance north), and 1/3 of the way west around the world. The American-Canadian eclipse of 1979 became the Siberian eclipse of 1997, the North Atlantic eclipse of 2015, and will become the Siberia- Alaska eclipse in 2033, the last total eclipse of this family. I did see the Siberia eclipse in 9 March 1997, along with about 60 others, and not too many other people. The American eclipse on 21 August 2017 will be a repeat of the family I saw in Ontario in 1963.
All of Europe enjoyed some degree of partial eclipse, but partial eclipses are not total. The concept was lost on me for many years, when I had said “I have seen an eclipse.” I had, but not a total eclipse. A woman in Hamburg, Germany, posted on Facebook why she saw a fat crescent and her friend in the Faeroes saw briefly (through clouds) totality. For eclipses, 99% partial is not total and that 99.9% is also not total. An individual understands this statement once totality has been seen. Eclipses are nature’s way of telling us that time and place matter. I’ve heard many say, “You can see it later,” when no, we can’t see it later. We place ourselves on the track the day before if possible, and look for good viewing spots. When the Moon’s shadow no longer covers us, we can’t chase it down again.
The advantage of seeing an eclipse by air is planes can fly above clouds, which cover much eclipse tracks, including the North Sea in March. Additionally, planes may fly along the eclipse track at a quarter of the Moon’s shadow’s speed, allowing one to see a longer eclipse.
The disadvantage of seeing eclipses from the air are the lack of the ability to see the subtle changes as the Moon covers the Sun, the approach of the shadow, and the last part of the eclipse, although not many care to watch the last part of an eclipse. My wife and I think it is our personal obligation to nature.
Another problem with seeing an eclipse from the air is that windows get frost. I’ve seen three from the air, and only over very dry Antarctica, was the window completely frost-free. In 2008, we had a great deal of ice, from too vigorous cleaning of the window by well-meaning individuals who left water in the window well. At 11,000 meters elevation, it is cold, and water freezes to the window. This time, we had smaller amounts, that while not affecting our visual viewing, did affect quality of pictures. I was able to remove a lot of the artifact, but not all. Finally, it is difficult for two people to look out an airplane window at the same time.
The latter brings me to viewing an eclipse. I try to take pictures and shoot video. But equipment fails, falls out of focus, or is on a moving platform, such as a ship or a turbulent plane. The most important thing for an eclipse viewer is to see it. Each eclipse is a little different; each has the same pattern. Each stays in my mind in some fashion. I don’t know in what way it will, only that something will strike me as special.
I will always remember the diamond ring with this eclipse, the last bit of sunlight before totality. As the Moon covers more of the Sun, making it a smaller crescent, eventually the edge of the Moon, not perfectly round, but containing mountains and valleys, allows sunlight to pass only through valleys between the mountains. These are called Bailey’s Beads. Finally, one valley is left, allowing sunlight to pass through, showing a dark disk with brilliant light. I will also remember the beautiful gossamer-thin corona, and the large prominence on the Sun, which normally I miss. I saw Venus, by accident, because I don’t look for planets near the eclipsed Sun. Venus was impossible to miss.
Most eclipse chasers know how many they have seen. A few of us know how many seconds we have been under the Moon’s shadow. One thousand is a milestone. An hour is a huge milestone. Another milestone is seeing the same eclipse family twice, which means 18 years and 10 or 11 days later. To me, one of the nicest milestones is seeing somebody I met on a prior one. This trip, a German flight, was no exception. There were several familiar faces, my roommate from the Uganda trip, and people I had seen in 2008 and 2010. I have gone on several trips where I was certain I would never see anybody I had seen before, only to be pleasantly surprised. After 24 eclipse trips, this sort of thing happens. It is nice.
Oh, I am just shy of 45 minutes under the Moon’s shadow.
Tags: Total Solar eclipses