Archive for the ‘WHY I CHASE ECLIPSES’ Category


November 22, 2012

This eclipse was not going to be a high probability one to see on the continent.  Saros 133, which is the name of this family member, last seen in South America 3 November 1994, would again visit the Earth 18 years and 11 1/3 days later, this time a third of the way around the world, beginning east of Darwin, crossing the Gulf of Carpentaria, then Queensland, near Cairns and Port Douglas, before heading out into the South Pacific Ocean north of New Zealand.  One per cent of the Earth would be covered by totality, but only a small part of that one per cent would be visible over land.

Cairns, on the northeast coast, is in the tropics, about 17 degrees South latitude.  The tropics have a good deal of convective rain showers, and Cairns had about a 50% probability of one’s seeing the eclipse.

We wanted to see Australia, and if I saw the eclipse, it would be the seventh continent I had seen an eclipse on and over.  But more importantly, it would be another chance–my thirteenth–to see one of the most spectacular shows in the world.  We eclipse chasers are addicted to the sight.

We flew to Melbourne, stayed there for 2 days, getting to know the city, and meeting up with two friends from Germany, one of whom I had met before at the last eclipse, over Patagonia, Argentina, 28 months earlier.  Every eclipse, I meet people from prior eclipses, and this one was no exception.

We then flew to Ayers Rock (Uluru) by way of Alice Springs, and visited the monolith at sunrise and sunset, along with a walking tour, so we could see the caves, the petroglyphs, the sandstone, appreciating that for 60,000 of the 350 million years, people have marveled at this place, making it a sacred spot.

We then left, and flew to Cairns by way of Alice Springs again, this time having time for a tour of the town that is virtually in the center of the continent.

The following morning, Cairns was cloudy, except for a nice hole in the sky, that would have been 15 minutes late, had the eclipse occurred that day.  We went out to Green Island, noting that it seemed to be clearer, although the locals said that it had a similar climate to Cairns.  But it didn’t.  Cairns is deeply recessed from the Coral Sea, with an eastern peninsula that was catching moisture from storms to the south and spilling over those of us in town.

We had decided not to get up at 1 a.m. to go out to Green Island for the eclipse, figuring we wouldn’t have mobility.  The problem was we didn’t have mobility in Cairns, either, to go inland or to Port Douglas, both of which might have been better spots to view the spectacle.

My wife suggested I e-mail meteorologist Jay Anderson, who has achieved fame as an eclipse climatologist and meteorologist.  I have been on several eclipses with Jay, knew he was on a cruise ship for this eclipse, but figured he wouldn’t have time to write me back.  Still, what did I have to lose?

As it turned out, it was the best decision I made during the trip.  Jay gave me a weather synopsis and said succinctly at the end of his e-mail:  “If you can, get offshore.”

In the meantime, I met two Russian friends.  Sergey and Tatiana were at the annular eclipse in Kenya in January 2010.  Sergey works for an oil company in Luanda, Angola, and Tatiana is a travel agent in Slovenia.  Sergey was also at the annular eclipse in the US last May, and we saw it together in Page, Arizona.  Sergey was doing automatic eclipse filming, using programs that were far beyond my comprehension.  He was going to stay on land and hope.  Tatiana would do the same, and she had to fly out of Cairns about 2 hours after totality.  Cairns was flooded with eclipse chasers for several days.

So, at 1 a.m. on 14 November, eclipse day, we awoke and caught the 2:30 a.m. boat to Green Island, setting up on the northeast beach at 3:30.  The sky above us was clear, and darker clouds were behind us, back towards Cairns.  It was easiest the clearest skies we had seen so far on the tirp.  We had great views of the Southern Cross, the Magallenic Clouds, alpha and beta-Centauri, and upside down Orion.

There were clouds on the horizon, but we could see sunrise, and first contact, where the Moon begins to cover the Sun.  As the Sun rose, the clouds increased, and so did the tide, which was due to rise 3 meters 2 hours after totality, at 6:38.  We figured we were safe from the tide, but it rapidly appeared that this would not be the case, so we moved well up on shore.

As the Sun rose further, the clouds began to become a little larger and darker–typical convection in the tropics.  We saw several clouds–one in particular–that were worrisome, when we were only 7 minutes from totality.  But then convection shut down due to atmospheric cooling of 3.5 C from the eclipse itself.

This eclipse had a wonderful diamond ring at both ends (do any not?), with a very delicate corona extending about two solar diameters to the east of the Sun.  It was not a dark eclipse, and there was little red along the horizon, but like the family member I saw in Bolivia, the shadow was visible in the morning sky.  Trees on Green Island prevented us from seeing the shadow arrive, but I had no difficulty seeing it depart.  And two minutes later, the eclipse was over, just like that.

Easily three hundred people saw this from the end of Green Island.  There were experienced chasers and many first timers.

Every eclipse is different, but it is difficult to say whether one is more special than another.  Each person sees something a little different, and each person who is fortunate enough to have seen more than one sees something different.  I try to go through a checklist of things to see with each eclipse, but like my camera and video plans, it usually is forgotten at the critical moment, which lasts on average of 2 minutes, but feels like 8 seconds.  We are left asking….”When is the next one?”  It will be 3 November 2013 in the South Atlantic, ending in Ethiopia.  Getting to that one will be difficult….but not impossible.  We have a connection in Africa–Sergey–who has been to Kampala three times and thinks Uganda is a decent possibility to see 24 seconds of totality–yes, 24 seconds–next year.  We discussed the trip, and several other eclipses coming up, including the long-awaited 2017 eclipse in the US, when we met at Sydney a few days later.

Fifteen seconds of fame:  I was interviewed by Australian TV after the eclipse, while on the boat back from Green Island.  I have no idea if anything appeared on TV.  And while lying in bed that night, I got a call on my cell phone beginning with “44” .  A journalist from CNN in London wanted to interview me about my experience, that I published on CNN iReport.  What is interesting–and discouraging to me–about iReport is that most of the featured pictures were of the crescent Sun.  Few showed the total eclipse itself, which is far more beautiful.  Indeed, the difference between totality and a partial eclipse (even 99%), is the difference between day and night.

Eclipse families:

Currently, there are 13 total eclipses in every 18 years 10 or 11 1/3 days, depending upon leap years and time zones.  Each one of the 13 total eclipses is a member of a family that begins at either the north or south poles and moves the opposite direction over nearly 1300 years or 70-75 eclipses.  Some of these start off as total; most begin as partial, become total or annular for many “visits” and then end as partial.

The reason for this repetition is the 3 requirements for a total eclipse:

Synodic period–New Moon–every 29.530589 days.  The Moon has to be in line with the Earth and Sun.                                                    223 New Moons = 6585.3213 days.

Draconic Period–every 27.21222 days.  The Moon’s orbit is inclined 5.1 degrees to the plane of the Earth’s orbit, and the nodes, where it crosses the Earth’s orbit, are constantly moving.  The Moon has to be near a node when it is new.  This particular eclipse was near the ascending node, where the Moon was near crossing the plane of the Earth’s orbit.                                                  242 Draconic periods=6585.3572 days.

Anomalistic period–every 27.554550 days.  The Moon and Sun are nearly the same angular size in the size, but the Moon’s size can change 12% from our view depending upon whether it is near the Earth or far from it.  The Sun-Earth distance changes about 3% every year.  The Moon has to be close enough to the Earth to appear larger than the Sun.                                                                    239 Draconic periods=6585.5376 days.

The first two determine a central eclipse, where the long axis of the Moon’s conic shadow reaches the Earth.  They occur every 6585.3213 days.  Eighteen years are 6570 days, and 4 leap years, or 5, make the period between successive eclipses in a family 18 years and 10.32 or 11.32 days.  The third of a day is important, because it shifts the path of the eclipse about a third of the way west around the world. This eclipse was seen in South America in 1994 and Australia in 2012.  It will be seen in the South Atlantic and Africa in 2030.

While the periods are almost alike, they are not exact.  There is a 0.03 day difference.  This seems minor, but over time, the Moon arrives at the node 2 hours later each cycle.  The Moon doesn’t have to be exactly at the node for a total eclipse to take place, but eventually, the Moon will arrive too late and the eclipse will not happen.

This particular Saros, 133, is an ascending node eclipse that began in 1219 and had its first total eclipse near Prague in 1544.  In the 19th century, it generated eclipses greater than 6 minutes, long for an eclipse.  In 1850, an eclipse was 6m50s, the longest this particular Saros would generate, and it occurred in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, north of the equator.  The last total eclipse of this family will be in 2373, and the last eclipse of the Saros will be in 2499.    Because these cycles are not perfect in their lining up, eventually the Moon will miss the node when new, and the eclipse family will die.  But at the same time, one new one will reach the node at the right time, and a new Saros will be born.  I find the workings of the Saros cycle as beautiful as the sight I saw from the Great Barrier Reef last 14 November.


October 3, 2009

Why have I traveled all over the world, at least to six continents and have flown over both poles, to view a total solar eclipse?  Because I caught the bug back in 1991, July 11 to be exact, when the 6 minute and 27 second spectacle was visible from our hotel.  I have the comments on tape somewhere, and I remember that I uttered sounds I didn’t think I could make.  This is a brief You Tube video of the last seconds before totality, the Diamond Ring, and early totality from Libya in 2006.  I have a better video of the recent 2010 eclipse from Argentina (link here or at end of this post).

People are changed by the experience.  Some cry.  I was a bit frightened during my first four when I saw the Sun disappear.  This is primal stuff.  But it is beautiful.  The most beautiful sight in nature?  Maybe.  It is certainly for me in the top three.

After a little bite is taken out of the Sun (first contact) by the Moon, the show progresses very slowly at first, until suddenly one realizes that sunglasses are no longer needed and that the light has changed to a weird yellowish cast.  As the light continues to slowly dim, one’s shadow becomes very stark–each hair on your head can be discerned.  Holes through leaves in trees become crescents, hundreds of crescents.

Then, with a few minutes to go, there appears a dark wall in the west as if a silent thunderstorm were approaching.  This is the approach of the shadow of the Moon.  The light diminishes to where there are discontinuities where the limb of the Moon, which is not perfectly spherical, but has mountains and valleys, lets some light through and blocks other light.  These are the Bailey’s beads.  Finally, one bead is left, one brilliant last bit of sunlight, with the beginnings of seeing a black hole around a bright light and silvery fine corona.  This is the diamond ring, and usually people shout it out.  Finally, the sun light is extinguished, somebody yelling, “Filters off!” since it is now safe to look with the unaided eye.  And there is the corona and the black hole in the sky, a total solar eclipse.  I’ve traveled half way around the world to India for 43 seconds of totality; I’ve traveled to the South Pacific for 33 seconds.  I’ve traveled to South Africa only to be clouded out at the last hour.  And in China, last July 22, we were thought to be clouded out when, with 2 minutes to go until totality, a small hole appeared, giving us a view of the corona.  Click on the pictures below to see them fully round, rather than oblong!

Why do I go to these?  Because I can’t imagine not going!

Above:  scan0003Just before the diamond ring (Aruba, 26 February 1998).  Below shows totality with the corona.  There is an inner and outer corona that show up depending upon exposure of the camera.  I don’t film these any more, but if you want to see some really good shots, my good friend Eliot Schechter, a nationally known photographer, has some great shots on his Web site.   His picture of a totally eclipsed Sun with the dark Moon’s shadow taken from a jet was the 1 August 2008 eclipse over the high arctic.

There are also annular, or ring, eclipses, where the Moon does pass in front of the Sun but is too far away from the Earth to cover the Sun completely.  Both the Moon and Sun vary in their distance from us; the Sun’s variation is only about 3%, but the Moon’s is 12%.  This changes their apparent size in the sky, and that is all it takes to turn totality into annularity, darkness to a little less bright.  Still, annular eclipses are beautiful to see.  The above was taken in Bisbee, AZ 10 May 1994.  The lower was in San Diego 4 January 1992.  We were told by several that annular eclipses weren’t worth a trip to San Diego.  I believe the word was “Big Deal.”  We left Tucson in the rain, and got to San Diego with partly cloudy skies.  We parked ourselves on top of Mt. Cube and watched the fully annular eclipsed Sun drop into the Pacific Ocean.  Maybe it wasn’t total, but it was one of the most lovely sights I’ve ever seen.  Two hours later, it was pouring rain.  We lived right!


The most exciting of all was the Siberian eclipse of 9 March 1997.  That’s right, Siberia in March.  We went the long way around via Salt Lake, NYC, Moscow and an all night flight to Irkutsk.  After a couple of days on frozen Lake Baikal, we took the Trans-Siberian railroad to Chita, which even our guide referred to as a “hole.”  While it had been clear the night before, it was totally socked in at Chita.  Thoroughly bummed, the 12 of us took a bus to the eclipse site.  As we got closer, the clouds thinned and the Sun rose higher.  We got to the site with a clear view of the Sun!  What I remember most was watching the approach of the Moon’s shadow, the “Eye of God.” approaching.  I have never seen anything so dark.  And then to watch four planets, a comet and the eclipsed Sun for just under 2 minutes.  I tried photographing it, but the below zero temps froze the camera.  I just dropped it in the snow and looked.  That was better!  Let the pros do the shooting.  I’ll do the looking!  Very few saw this one; we were among the lucky!


Next total solar eclipse: 14 November 2012 in northeastern Australia and SW Pacific basin.  The above picture was the Moon’s shadow leaving our site in Libya 29 March 2006.  It is noon, if you can believe it!

The recent annular eclipse of 15 January 2010 is on another post with both pictures and a video.  We’ve gone to Spain and Costa Rica for annulars (picture to right taken through a filter of the 3 October 2005 eclipse from Javea, Spain)  but usually don’t travel long distances for them.  But I got the bug for this one, the longest annular in the third millenium (over 8 minutes), and Kenya provided a great excuse, since I had never been to East Africa and never thought I would get there.   The next annular eclipse, 20 May 2012, has a track from northern California through Nevada, southern Utah/northern Arizona, New Mexico, ending in west Texas.

Visit the post for the recent 11 July 2010 eclipse from Patagonia, Argentina.  In a word, we were lucky!