Posts Tagged ‘Total Solar eclipses’


November 13, 2013

Saros 143, the name given to this particular eclipse family, was seen by my wife and me  on 24 October 1995, in Mandawa, India.  We saw it as a morning eclipse, with a brilliant purple chromosphere, the Sun’s inner atmosphere, and 42 seconds of totality.  It was short but exceedingly beautiful.

Total solar eclipses require 3 simultaneous occurrences: New Moon, the Moon’s passing directly in front of the Sun, and the Moon’s size viewed from Earth being larger than the Sun’s apparent size.  The Moon’s orbit is not coplanar with the Earth’s, and about every 13.6 days it crosses the plane of the Earth’s orbit.  This must occur with New Moon, for a Total Solar Eclipse to occur.  Finally, the Moon must be close enough to the Earth and the Sun further away, so the Moon will cover the Sun.  It is a remarkable cosmic coincidence that the Moon is about 1/400 th diameter of the Sun and the Sun is about 400 times further away.  Without going into the mathematics in great detail, these 3 events come into line every 18 years 10 or 11 days (depending upon a leap year) and a third of a day, which shifts each eclipse in the family about 1/3 of the way around the world and either northerly or southerly (in this case southerly).  This eclipse was 18 years and 10 days after the Indian eclipse and was shifted 1/3 of the way around the world.

This time around, the eclipse was further west, beginning near Bermuda and ending in Ethiopia.  We saw it in Uganda in late afternoon.

There are often problems getting to the eclipse track, and for me, it involved four flights, two of them 7 hours or longer, and arrival the following night after I left early in the morning.  The transatlantic flight was badly delayed, but I eventually got to Entebbe.

The next morning, three of us toured the Botanical gardens

Lake Victoria from the Botanical Gardens

Lake Victoria from the Botanical Gardens

and in the afternoon the sanctuary where Ugandans are trying to bring back endangered species.  We had our first meeting about the eclipse that evening.  I was one of only two non or partial German speakers, and the other was married to a fluent speaker.  Most of the group spoke good English.  The difficulty with my German and the softness and accent of the Ugandan English would make this a more difficult trip than I had expected.

We drove northwest to Murchison Falls the day before the eclipse.  We did not, however, scout for eclipse sites.  This would prove to be unfortunate on eclipse day, when the primary site, north of Pakwach, was scouted by us with nobody having their eclipse gear–cameras, telescopes, computers, and quite complex instruments that many take to an eclipse.  Had the site been optimal, we would have had to return to get the gear and tell others.

We returned to the hotel and left for a site east of where we were, where the road curved into the track, and set up in a field nearby.  The southeasterly flow brought cumulus clouds, and afternoon convection occurred, although it was capped at about 2500 meters.  We missed first contact by about five minutes, then had clear skies through about 60% partial phases.   Unfortunately, cirrus outflow from a distant thunderstorm had a northerly flow, and we had progressively thickening clouds as time passed.  At 10 minutes before totality, I lost the view in binoculars, because of clouds and dimming sunlight.

Approach of the Moon’s shadow.

Just after third contact, with the Moon’s moving away from the Sun.



The shadow appeared in the western sky as a huge black conical wall.  We were able to see the diamond ring, Bailey’s beads, the inner corona (not the outer) and a lovely eclipse through clouds.  I think while some were disappointed, they were only a few.  We were extremely lucky to see this eclipse.  The climatological predictions were against us, but we got to a good spot and had a good view.  I’ve seen better; I’ve seen a lot worse, and there are few things more depressing than being totally clouded out for a total eclipse.  

The next day, we toured the nearby national park and took an afternoon boat ride up to Albert Falls.

Albert Falls, Nile River

Albert Falls, Nile River

What struck me most was the beautiful green of the African bush.  The wildlife was good, especially from the Nile; the green was something I had not seen on my trips and safaris to Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia.

The following day we drove south to Kibale Primate Park, This turned out to be about a 12 hour slog along dirt roads that were so bumpy that my stomach hurt, a first.  Lunch was late, at Fort Portal, and we pulled in about 6.  Darkness comes early after sunset in the tropics; it comes relatively early in Tucson, at 32 degrees N., and it comes much later in the northern US (45-49 N).

Mousebird, Kibale National Park.

Mousebird, Kibale National Park.

Water Lilies, Kibale

Chimpanzee, Kibale

Chimpanzee, Kibale

After the primate tours, we went to Queen Elizabeth National Park, crossing the equator, and took game drives and a boat ride along the channel of Lake Edward.

The drive back to Entebbe took a day.

I don’t go into detail here about safaris, except to show pictures.  This was an eclipse trip with safaris being a big part of it.  Such a concept is foreign to many people, including the eclipse leader in this instance.  The primary purpose of the trip is to see the eclipse, and that has priority over everything else, including sanctuary visits, seeing wildlife, buying trinkets and newspapers.  Admittedly, that is my opinion, but had we avoided those mistakes, more options would have opened to us on eclipse day.  We were lucky; we saw the eclipse.  We could have easily had missed it.

Next total eclipse is 20 March 2015.  We will fly this eclipse, since ground viewing is low probability in difficult to reach places.  I do have concerns about the flight and frosted windows, which severely degraded the view my wife and I had on the 1 August 2008 eclipse.  The plane must have clean, dry windows.  Water gets in only through the doors and from cleaning; it does not affect the windows from the outside, only the inside of the outside window.  This concept has yet to be fully understood by tour operators, although one will use isopropyl alcohol to clean the windows, which has a lower vaporization temperature.

Interestingly, although my comments have not been completely believed, those who fly eclipses are now carrying hair dryers and long extension cords, suggesting that perhaps some of my rather heated past words are hitting home.

The other concern I have is the ability of some eclipse chasers to feel they are better than others and take views from windows to which they were not originally assigned.  This probably will not be changed.

In 2015, I hope to speak German much better.  I plan on commenting in both languages at the pre-flight briefing.  Those who disagree with me were not present during the time of the eclipse.  They had clear views through clear windows.

All of us who pay for one of the great experiences in the world deserve an equally good experience, assuming the weather cooperates on eclipse day.


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.


November 19, 2012

From 20 km, I finally saw the monolith, Uluru (Ayers Rock), that for years had been at the top of “The List,” of things I have wanted to see or do ever since I saw a wolf on Isle Royale, six and a half years previously.


The day after we flew in, we took a sunrise tour, where we saw the low rays of the Sun, in a few days to be briefly eclipsed by the Moon, strike the sandstone.  Then we approached it.


Uluru has been around for 350 million years.  What we see is the tip of a large uplifting, with rock extending about 2 km below the surface.  I didn’t know that, and that was only the beginning of discovering what I did not know.


For example, we visited numerous caves and inlets to the rock.  Uluru is not simply a rock with vertical faces; there are many places where water can collect, places where people can–and have–hidden, lived, and practiced their faith.  The aborigines, who were once shot on sight by the first white men on the continent, have been present in this area for 60,000 years.  That is roughly thirty times the existence of any other major religion on the Earth.  To them, Uluru is sacred.  There are places along the trail where one is not allowed to photograph, just as it is considered insulting and wrong to photograph an aborigine without their permission.  The visitor’s center is off limits to photography as well.

As one leaves the visitor’s center, there is a request–not a requirement, since there are no requirements at Uluru, only requests–not to climb what is considered sacred to the aborigine people, who never climb the rock.  There is a chain that allows people to climb the monolith, but the day I was there, the rock was closed because of high winds.  It didn’t matter to me, since I had not planned to climb it anyway, knowing it was sacred and ought not to be climbed.


Thirty-six people have died on Uluru from climbing, and for each the natives have required a ceremony to help those who died into the afterlife.  There are several memorial plaques that were placed on Uluru as well, although there are no new ones, because that affects the monolith, too.


Frankly, I found it good to go to a place where there were no extreme sports allowed.  There were no races up Uluru, no helicopter rides or hot air balloon rides to the top.  Indeed, the airspace over Uluru is also off limits.  There were no people BASE jumping, or using other conveniences to fly off the mountain.  Other than the chain fence, and the worn path into the Sandstone, there were no marks on Uluru other than a few paintings in the lower caves.

I can only imagine what Uluru would be if left to the white people.  There would be multiple routes to the top, the sandstone would be pockmarked with pitons, there would be ropes hanging off it, old campfires, tents, mountain biking, tours to the top, marathons ending at the top, races around the monolith, human waste and other litter.


I don’t have a problem with any of the above races, so long as they take place where it is appropriate, not one sacred to people who have existed in an incredibly harsh environment for sixty thousand years and have not destroyed it.

Theodore Roosevelt once said about the Grand Canyon, “You cannot improve on it.  Leave it as it is.”  We have not done that.  South Rim Village is large, although it is a relatively small area on the Rim.  There are trails, although they are limited as well, and they require a great deal of effort to walk.  We have, however, filled the airspace with fixed and rotary wing aircraft, creating a great deal of unnecessary noise.  By Uluru, one hears the wind, the birds, and very little else.

That evening, we took a sunset tour, again watching the change of colors that were a function of the Sun, the sandstone, the caves, and the black stripes where water drained off the monolith with each rain.  It was spectacular.  A group of Austrian tourists were nearby, and I practiced my German with them.  I lent them my binoculars so they could see parts of the monolith that I now knew something about.  It was the first time I had taught about nature while speaking only German.  I explained the pools along the rock that collected water and then overflowed to pools below.  I found words that I knew as I needed them.  It wasn’t great, but they understood what I was saying.  In two roles that I was comfortable in, teaching and nature, I was able to relax and speak.  It made the view even more magical.  How many different languages had been spoken at this site during the past six hundred centuries, I cannot imagine.  But one man spoke two that night, and for him, and that was special.


It’s nice for once to see something truly unique, virtually unspoiled, and will stay that way, except for the path to the top, which may some day be closed.  I hope it will be.


I went to Uluru to see the largest monolith in the world.  I came away thinking how nice it was that Australians, most specifically the most maligned ones–the aborigines–have not allowed the large numbers of people who have to show they are the best at whatever sport they decide they must do.  World class is to me an overused term, but at Uluru, the term is deeply appropriate.

What a blessing.



May 29, 2012

Here are the central eclipses (total and annular, where the axis of the Moon’s shadow touches the Earth) through 2025.

2013:  9-10 May:  Annular from northern Australia through the Solomons crossing the Equator well south of Hawaii.

2013: 3 November:  Total (hyrbid, actually, with annular at both ends) from western Atlantic south of the Azores, into Africa.  While the eclipse is not far from the East Coast of the US, it is a few seconds of totality and an extremely narrow (<5 km wide) path.  Ships will be seeing this one; I hope somebody decides to fly it from the Azores, where it is fewer than 700 km and 1m20s total.

2014:  29 April:  Annular touching the southern tips of both ends of the Australian continent.

(2014:  23 October:  Partial eclipse of US and Canada, about 40-65%, more to the north.)

2015:  20 March.  Total beginning SW of Iceland, passing south of the island, passing north of England and west of Scandinavia, over Svalbard, and ending at the North Pole.

2016:   9 March:  Total beginning over Sumatra, Borneo, misses New Guinea, ends about 700 km NW of Oahu, 2m15s, nearly a two minute penalty from the maximum over the open ocean.

2016:  1 September:  Annular crossing Africa north of Kinshasha, northern Mozambique, and Madagascar.

2017:  26 February.  Annular, extremely narrow, from Patagonia to Angola.

2017:  21 August.  Total, long-awaited, in US, from Oregon to South Carolina.  It is maximum (2m40s) in the Evansville, Indiana region (bordering states), still 2m38s in Nebraska, 2m8s in Oregon, and 2m35s as it exits the US.

2019:  2 July:  Total, Open ocean eclipse ending in northern Chile and Buenos Aires at sunset.

2019:  26 December.  Annular from Saudi Arabia, southern India, Sumatra, and Borneo.

2020:  21 June:  Annular from Congo, Saudi Arabia, Kashmir, China, and Taiwan.

2020:  14 December:  Total, crossing southern Chile and south central Argentina, well north of where the 2010 eclipse occurred.  This will have its maximum of 2m9s over land.

2021:  10 June.  Annular, from Canada to Siberia.  The Canadian portion begins at the northern tip of Lake Superior on a line to about Winnipeg and then heads due north.

2021:  4 December.  Total, over Argentina, but unlike the previous one in the series, the path will be within about 2000 km from Buenos Aires, rather than 4000 km from Punta Arenas during the last visit of  this Saros.

2023:  20 April.  Hybrid, touching the northwestern tip of Australia and going through the neck of Irian Jaya.  The Australian portion is about 1 minute in length.

2023:  14 October.  Annular, from Oregon to South America, passing through Texas, the Yucatan, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Brazil.

2024:  8 April.  Total, from south Texas (Del Rio area, Dallas, Little Rock, through Indianapolis, Cleveland, Rochester NY and Maine).  Toronto and Montreal are also included.

2024:  2 October:  Annular from open ocean south of Hawaii to Patagonia.

Honorable Mention:

2026:  12 August.  Total, with Reykjavik and northern Spain and Mallorca on the path.

2027:  2  August:  Total, Saros 136, at 6m22s maximum, from Gibraltar (both sides of the strait, through northern Libya, central Egypt, and Djibouti.

2033:  Total in northern Alaska.

2034:  Total crossing Honshu.


May 21, 2012

Finally!  An eclipse we could drive to, for the first time since the previous member of this family of eclipses 10 May 1994!  Saros 128, the member of this family, returns to the Earth every 18 years 10.3 days.  Last time around, it was a morning eclipse.  This time, it was a late afternoon eclipse, further north.

We spent 2 days at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and then drove north to Page on eclipse day.  The distance is about 230 km (140 miles).  We found a place at the back of a motel which had a perfect view of the western horizon, including the Kaibab Plateau, the Vermillion Cliffs, and Lake Powell.  This time, I set up the C* telescope I was able to bring, attached the solar filter, and used that for views.  The sunspots were striking!

I then set up a video camera at about 25 x and a filter, so it would run during annularity with minimal effort on my part to adjust it.  I had a camera with 35x optical, and I put a solar filter over the lens and took pictures periodically.  Annular solar eclipses do darken the sky a little, there is an “eclipse wind,” and the temperature cooled 5.8 C, or about 10.5 F.  The sun was starting to set, but obviously the eclipse had an effect on the temperature, since 5 p.m to 6:30 p.m.temperature drops are usually less than half that.

We had a nice group with us, with two men from the UK next to us, many German tourists, so I could practice my German, a motel, where they did not mind our using their cold water and toilet facilities, and a place to park right next to our gear!  My wife helped rescue two Swiss women who were on the balcony of their room and were locked out.  For that, she got some Swiss chocolate!!

We left page at 7:30 p.m.,, drove past the unbelievable crowd of cars at the site overlooking Horseshoe Bend in the Colorado River, and returned to the South Rim at 2200!  Video of the eclipse is here.  All pictures of the eclipse and the Grand Canyon are here.


Just after “First Contact”



September 1, 2010

On an early March afternoon this past year, I was on my hands and knees building a large sundial at Rowe Sanctuary in central Nebraska, where people stand on the date and their shadow tells the time.  From the second week in March through the second week in April, Rowe is busy as visitors arrive from all states and a few dozen countries to witness the Lesser Sandhill Crane migration, one of the three greatest natural sights I’ve seen  and one of Jane Goodall’s top ten.  I was working pre-season and decided a nature center like Rowe needed a sundial.

I was using markers, T-squares, a calculator and duct tape when a good looking young man stopped by.  He was friendly,  and I knew him as the Great Plains photographer Michael Forsberg.  Mike was interested in what I was doing with trigonometry and ellipses and then asked if I could find him information for the full Moon azimuth as it rose. He wanted to know exactly where in the eastern sky he would see it rise.

Fulfilling a request from Mike Forsberg suddenly became my top priority, so that evening I sent him the information.  He later e-mailed me pictures he had taken out in the viewing blinds, including an incredible shot of 4 different species of geese flying together.  Imagine, the premier wildlife photographer in the American midwest e-mailing me pictures he took!  Later that week, when I saw Mike again, I had him sign one of his books for me.  I just happened to be making a sundial when he walked by.  He just happened to stop.  And that changed my life. I just didn’t know it at the time.

When I left Nebraska in early March, I felt I had unfinished business.  I had not been there when the migration was in full swing, nor had I led tours to the viewing blinds, which had been a goal–a dream–of mine.  Four weeks later, I flew back to Nebraska, to volunteer at the height of the crane season, when 600,000 birds are on a short stretch of the Platte River, flying in at night to the safety of the braided channels and flying out to the fields in the morning to eat waste corn.  That week, I worked 17 hour days, sleeping on the floor in the visitor center, because local housing was full, listening to the cranes call on the nearby Platte.  The first night I shared a floor with– Mike Forsberg– who now knew me.  We didn’t talk much but I soon learned Mike is modest as he is good.  He deeply respects Rowe volunteers, because we help make some of his photography possible.  His nature photography is the best I’ve ever seen.

I finished my training and became a lead guide, meaning I could take visitors to the viewing blinds.  I got to talk about Lesser Sandhill Cranes; I watched people smile and heard them cry when they saw the cranes land, “dance,” and call before them.  Sandhills are large and loud, their voice primitive and deeply primal, echoing across 3 million years of time.  My enthusiasm outweighed my shyness, and I thoroughly enjoyed guiding.  We volunteers were a cohesive group, all of us working together to do whatever needed to be done, even if it wasn’t our “job.”  That week, I felt alive in a way I seldom have experienced.  So often, I told visitors, “I work 17 hour days, make coffee at 5 a.m., clean toilets, sweep the walk, give “Crane 101 talks,” do odd jobs, get dinner, sleep on the floor and see the cranes morning and night.  Am I lucky or what?”  When I called home, my wife commented my voice sounded different.

Mike stayed in the visitor center a second night:  two Mikes, two nights, too cool, two of his books I bought.  Mike signed the second one, too, adding a stunning phrase, calling me “a man of great spirit,” for he had quickly recognized something in me that I had not fully appreciated:  I have a deep spiritual connection to nature, the outdoors and wilderness. Mike is a man of faith and told me he felt closest to God when he was in the photography blinds, where people are taken in late afternoon and cannot leave for any reason until mid-morning the following day.  He said the experience was beyond comparison.  I’m going to do it next spring.  It has become one of my dreams, and while I, a scientist and a statistician, consider myself a practical person, not far below the surface lies a deeply spiritual, emotional dreamer.  Somehow, Mike knew that and how to help me understand myself better.

Last July, after the eclipse in El Calafate, Argentina, I sent Mike a picture.  I was a bit embarrassed to be sending a handheld shot to a famous photographer.  Mike, however, immediately replied “very, very cool,” saying I must be the only guy in the world who was going to Patagonia in July and to northern Alaska in August.  I wrote him after I returned from the Brooks Range, 118 degrees north of where I was in South America, telling him I would be ordering one of his pictures as a gift.  I am becoming friends with a special man, because we share a spiritual bond with the outdoors, especially Sandhill Cranes.  If he hadn’t stopped when I was making the sundial, this never would have happened, and my perception of myself and indeed my life wouldn’t have changed.

*                                *                                 *

July 9 is a holiday in Argentina, independence day.  I was in Buenos Aires, appropriately staying on Avenida 9 Julio, the largest street in the world.  That day reminded me of Christmas, for it was a winter holiday at a similar latitude south of the equator as I live north.

I went to a restaurant as part of a tour, going up a narrow set of stairs to a table with other people on the tour.  One of the guides asked me to sit in the middle of the table next to a young German woman.  And that changed my life and hers, especially hers. She and I will never be quite the same again.

The woman, Maria, was a young German scientist on her first trip out of Europe.  She, like me, was in Argentina for the solar eclipse.  Both of us had expected to take a plane to fly over the clouds to see the eclipse, but the flight had been cancelled.  My trip down to Buenos Aires involved barely making a connection; had I missed it, I might have gone home, since the probability of seeing an eclipse in Patagonia in winter is poor.  What kept me going was the idea if I didn’t go, and people saw the eclipse from the ground, I would never forgive myself. I didn’t know at the time the details of Maria’s trip, but it seemed clear we would be “clouded out.”  I later learned she had been at a conference in California, had a car accident on a freeway, and brought no winter clothes with her, since she was also planning to see the eclipse from the air.  To say we were both depressed and having an awful trip was an understatement.

Maria was completely fluent in English.  I asked her what she did, learning of her work in preparing an X-Ray satellite for launch to the LaGrangian point furthest from the Sun.  Fortunately, I knew something about LaGrangian points, where the Earth and Sun’s gravitational pulls are equal, leading to stable orbits for bodies located there.  Because I had studied physics, I was able to ask intelligent questions, soon learning about the LaGrangian point 1.5 million km beyond the Earth where the satellite was going.  Because I knew about conics, the concept of parabolic and hyperbolic mirrors was understandable, and the major and minor axis of the elliptical orbit clear to me.  I listened to Maria for a good 30 minutes.  When she asked me what I did, there wasn’t much to say except I chased eclipses, taught math as a substitute, once practiced neurology, liked cats and was a vegetarian.  She taught math, liked cats and was also a vegetarian.  Naturally, she was most interested about my eclipse experiences.

On the afternoon tour of the city, we spent some time together, Maria convinced she wouldn’t see the eclipse.  This being my 20th eclipse trip, I told her many times:  “Maria, it isn’t over until it is over and we didn’t see it.”  Indeed, a year earlier, in China, a small window opened up through thick clouds right at totality.  We went absolutely nuts.  It was the only eclipse I ever saw while I held an umbrella.

I didn’t see Maria again until the next afternoon in Patagonia, when she was an invited speaker at an eclipse conference.  I asked a question, later going up and telling her she gave a good talk.  She looked like she needed to hear that.  That night, at the hotel, I invited myself to Maria’s table of 4, since I was otherwise going to eat alone.  I was the de facto trip weatherman; I was following several South American weather models, knew the barometer was rising, the streaming moisture into the “cone” of the continent was cutting off, and high pressure was building over the eastern South Pacific.  Maria wanted to know my forecast; I was cautiously more optimistic, telling her to ask me about the barometric pressure the next morning.

That night, the barometer rocketed upward, the sky cleared, and we awoke to a beautiful sight:  the southern hemisphere stars were visible.  Maria had never seen the southern sky before.  I didn’t sit on the bus with her but with Anita, a senior colleague.  When Anita pointed out the Southern Cross on the bus ride to Perito Moreno glacier, I did something quite uncharacteristic for me:  I went to the front of the bus and asked how many wanted to see the Magellanic Clouds under a dark sky.  A lot of sleepy faces raised hands.  Nobody objected.  We stopped for 5 minutes so everybody, including Maria, could view our companion galaxies.

That afternoon, I worried about clouds interfering with the eclipse, but Anita fortunately kept Maria far from me.  When totality was imminent, Maria and Anita joined me, and Maria cried as the Moon completely covered the Sun.  I shouted, as did others, and I stared in awe of the shadow cone of the Moon, which I had never seen so clearly.  But my greatest memory is hearing Maria cry.  It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, and I’ve seen totality 12 times.

The next morning, I said goodby to Maria, and I haven’t seen her since.

But unlike every other eclipse trip I’ve been on, we’ve corresponded.  First it was by Facebook then e-mail and frequent Skype chats.  That has never happened before.  Maria told me that she almost had a panic attack in the restaurant, and my listening to her calmed her down.  Just my listening.  She got so excited from the eclipse that she has cast off shackles that led her from living a full life.  My wife and I invited both Maria and Anita to the May 2012 annular eclipse in northern Arizona, so they can see the Grand Canyon and the eclipse.  Maria will cry at both. I know she will.   Recently, she went skydiving for the first time.  She is learning C++ programming so she can become indispensable on the Australia eclipse in 2012 and get a free trip there.  Maria has been the best correspondent I’ve encountered in my life and we’ve become good friends.  Because of her, I’m learning German, and I plan to visit her next year.  Maybe every year.  And that has changed my life.

Had we not had such bad starts to our trips…Had we not been seated next to each other in Buenos Aires…Had I not known something about LaGrangian points and infrared radiation…Had I not been an amateur meteorologist and in demand…Had I not stopped the bus so people could see the Magellanic Clouds…Had we not seen the eclipse, none of this would have happened. Maria would still be wanting to see her first eclipse, and I would  not be learning the four German cases.  In August, when I returned from northern Alaska, I had a four hour layover from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in Anchorage.  Had I not met Maria, I would have been bored, tired and cranky.  Instead, I chatted with her on Skype, passing the time quickly.

The older I get, the more unpredictable my life has become.  If I hadn’t been making a sundial, if Mike Forsberg hadn’t stopped by, if I hadn’t been seated where I was, and if I hadn’t known about LaGrangian points....


July 12, 2010

Yes, we did see this.  And we were lucky.  My video on YouTube was a simple camcorder set up facing the Sun and then left running, while I and Maria, a young German astrophysicist, watched.  This was Maria’s first eclipse, and she wanted to see it more than anybody I’ve known.  Her crying is not unusual; total solar eclipses are beautiful, primal, spiritual events.  They affect us deeply!

This was my 20th eclipse trip:  I’ve seen 11 total eclipses (this was my 12th), 5 ring (annular) and 3 times missed from clouds, wind or rain.  This trip featured a flight over the S. Pacific along the track, which is why I and many others signed up for it.  Seeing it from a plane is a 100% probability as opposed to the ground, especially on islands, where mobility is limited if there are eclipse blocking clouds.  Unfortunately, a week prior to the eclipse, the plane was taken out of service for major mechanical problems (or so we were told).  We had no plane and were going to see the eclipse in the worst possible spot:  the Argentinian Patagonia in mid-winter at the end of the eclipse track.  I’m a weather junkie, and all the models were pessimistic about clear skies in Patagonia for eclipse day.  Worse, because of the low position of the Sun, ANY significant horizon cloud would kill the eclipse.

I almost didn’t get out of the US.  Tucson to Houston flight was diverted to San Antonio because of T-storms over Houston.  I got to Houston at the other end of the airport from the Intl Terminal, plane to depart in 25 minutes.  Frankly, because of the lack of the eclipse flight and the distance traveled to likely see nothing, I would not have minded missing the plane and going home. But I did make the plane and was in Buenos Aires the next morning.

We stayed in B.A. 2 days then flew to Patagonia (more worries, because there had been an air traffic control strike as well which had cancelled many flights and made many others late) and got there with mostly cloudy skies that worsened as time progressed.  However, I knew high pressure was building in the eastern Pacific, and more importantly, the water vapor fetch that had been slamming into Patagonia shut off the night before the eclipse.  We had clear skies the next morning.  We first went out and viewed the southern sky and saw the ISS pass overhead.  On the way to the glacier, I got the idea to stop the bus and view the Magellanic Clouds from a dark site.  I was a bit nervous about holding everybody up, but NOBODY vetoed the idea, and several who had never seen them before got a chance.

The glacier was fine, the skies completely clear, the wind light.  I was starting to get optimistic, which is an oxymoron when used in conjunction with eclipse day.

We left the glacier at noon and were back in El Calafate at 1:30.  We got into 4  x 4s that held 15 people, had chains, and went up a single track that topped out about 3000 feet above the town and Lago Argentino nearby.

The views were stunning.

By this time, there were clouds on the mountains, which worried me, although they were mostly lenticular and were dissipating as they moved north, about where we were told (wrong, as it turned out) where the Sun would set.  First contact, where the Moon begins to cover the Sun, occurred about 1 hr 5 min before totality.  It couldn’t happen soon enough.  Clouds were starting to build on the mountains.  But when we realized that the Sun couldn’t possibly set where we were told it would, I finally relaxed, knowing that everything would be fine.

It was a beautiful eclipse.  Photographs, especially mine, don’t do it justice.  The corona was not particularly impressive, but the low Sun and the long, beautiful diamond ring were.  What captivated all of us was the shadow cone, as the Moon’s shadow lengthened as the Earth curved away from it.  This is captured very well on the photographs, and I saw it head into space after the eclipse was over.  It just appeared as a darker than normal area of sky.

Each total solar eclipse is special in its own way.  This one will be remembered by me for three things: (1) the difficulty getting there and my constant checking of multiple weather models of the south Atlantic, (2) the stunning shadow cone, and (3) Maria, a delightful young astrophysicist who had never seen a total eclipse before, desperately wanted to see this one, and joined me.  She was so moved, she was crying, not at all an unusual emotion, and one that is captured on the video.  I want all first timers to see the eclipse.  Of course, I want to see it, but I’ve seen them before, a first timer has not.  Watching the awe on their face when they see what we’ve been discussing is truly remarkable.

The eclipse was my 12th total solar, and with Russia, was probably the toughest, most worrisome one we saw.  But we caught a break in Patagonia and had 2m40s of totality.  Were we lucky or what?


December 30, 2009


October 4, 2009

First trip:  11 July 91 to the Baja to see the 6 1/2 minute total solar eclipse.  We didn’t plan on seeing any others, but about a year later PBS had a special on that eclipse, and we both asked, “when and where is the next one?”  That’s a sign one is getting hooked!

Second trip:  3 November 94 to Sevaruyo, Bolivia.  We called that the trip where every other night we had a bed.  I was altitude sick for a day in La Paz, and then we took the train south to get into the track.  Most memorable moment (and remember, this is 1994):  the train stops in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.  Somebody asks, “Where are we?”  Simultaneously, about 5 people say “18 degrees South 64 degrees west.”  Totally correct and completely useless!

Third trip:  24 October 95 to western India.  This eclipse was a guarantee on weather for days before.  We saw birds roost about 10 minutes before totality.  Because totality was so brief, we saw the chromosphere (the inner atmosphere) of the Sun for the whole time.  It was a lovely lavender.  I would put the shot on here, but my cable release broke prior and using my finger caused some blurring.  It may have been the prettiest I’ve seen.

Fourth trip: 9 March 97 to Siberia.  That is described elsewhere in this blog.

Fifth trip: 26 February 98 to Aruba.  We went to the south end of the island, where it started to rain.  We went back north and saw it in cloudy but adequate skies.  Had we stayed put, we would have been just fine.

Sixth trip: 21 June 01 to Zambia.  Jan had broken her humerus and had external pins in.  I could have been a nice husband and stayed home to help her.  Or I could have gone to the eclipse, which I did.  We saw totality about 50 miles north of Lusaka, the capital.  It was the only eclipse trip I was on where everybody in the group was silent.  That in of itself was probably the weirdest experience of all!

Seventh trip: 23 November 03 over Antarctica.  We flew to Punta Arenas  Chile, then took a couple of days to see Torres del Paine, a remarkable formation of climbable (not ever by me!) rocks.  We then took a Lan Chile flight with open cockpit (meaning you could look over the pilot’s shoulder, especially when he was taking pictures himself), getting totality somewhere around 73 degrees south latitude.  We then flew over the South Pole from an alititude of 2500 feet.  We came back over the Presidential range, flew around Vinson Massif twice and came back to Punta Arenas.  It was a 14 1/2 hour flight.  Next afternoon, we caught flights to Santiago, Lima, LAX and finally Tucson.


Torres del Paine:


Magellanic Penguin:


Antarctica Mountains:  The clarity of the air and the starkness of the shadows were remarkable.

Below is the South Pole station.  While we flew over (two passes), a C-130 cargo plane took off.  The contrail at the surface was incredible to see.   DSCF0031

Vinson Massif, highest mountain in Antarctica:


Eighth trip:  8 April 2005 to the South Pacific.  We flew to Tahiti, took a cruise by Pitcairn and Easter Islands, then ended in Callao/Lima.

This is right after totality.  The dark clouds are the departing Moon’s shadow.DSCF0154

DSCF0100The author, with Pitcairn Island in the background.  It was too rough to land.  We really lucked out with this eclipse, because a low pressure system suddenly strengthened to our south.  Meteorologist Jay Anderson had the captain move us further northeast along the track the night before.

DSCF0110This is Tongariki, where the Moai were ordered.  I found that and Anakena interesting, but the quarry was to me the real Easter Island (below).


Ninth trip:  29 March 06 in Libya.  We flew to Genoa, Italy and cruised to Naples, Syracuse, Alexandria, and landed at Tobruk, where we saw the eclipse inland.    As you can hear in the video, when totality occurred, a bunch of Libyans in cars came honking across the desert like a modern day Lawrence of Arabia.

Tenth trip:  1 August 08 in the high arctic, by air.  Unfortnately, our window was very icy, and our view was significantly degraded.  Efforts to try to find out why this occurred were totally stonewalled, which I think is unfortunate.  Still, we did see totality, and anybody who goes to Eliot Schechter’s web site will see a shot of totality taken from the plane at 36,000 feet (11,000 meters).

Here is our shot of the North Pole:IMG_0691

And proof of sorts:IMG_0689

Eleventh trip: 22 July 09, south of Shanghai China.  This is about as close to missing one without actually doing it.  After days of high humidity and record temperatures, a front sagged south on eclipse day.  We moved south, but alas, the front followed us, and while we had good views of the Sun 2 hours before, it clouded over until 2 minutes before totality.  Then we got this:IMG_1477 Not impressive, but we did see the corona.  Because of the thick clouds and the length of this eclipse, we had a wide shadow and it got dark.  Really, really dark.  Eclipses normally drop the light to late twilight.  Not this one.  It was NIGHT!

11 July 2010:  See the related post on this one.  We were supposed to fly and then the plane got cancelled.  We got one clear day in the austral winter and got one great eclipse!


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!