Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Touched by the sun

I want to share my wonderful experience of the total solar eclipse on March 29, 2006. The event had a profound impact on me and I cannot get it out of my head. Actually, I don't want to get it out of my head. I think the memory of such a dramatic event remains forever. Indeed, a witness to a total solar eclipse is surely changed, maybe even a little deranged, by it.

For this particular eclipse the narrow path of totality started in South America, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, Africa (Ghana to Libya), the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey, and on (north-eastwards) across Asia.

The path of the Moon's umbral shadow (shown here in dark blue) began in Brazil and extended across the Atlantic, northern Africa, and central Asia where it ended at sunset in western Mongolia. NASA illustration.

For Europeans seeking the great experience the most convenient sites were along a stretch of Turkey's Mediterranean coastline east of Antalya, where there is an airport. This region also had the best chance of favourable weather conditions, ie a clear sky.

Shaded band shows the path of totality across Turkey

Hundreds of thousands of Europeans flew to Turkey especially for the eclipse. Our holiday tour company alone took about 4,000 people to a handful of 5 star hotels for a one-night stay. And there were people of other nationalities there also. Many people were solar eclipse fanatics who try to witness every such eclipse, photograph it, video it, etc, with expensive equipment, and some were professional astronomers. Others, like Sue and me, had had their first taste of a total solar eclipse in Cornwall and South Devon in 1999 - which was marred by dense cloud cover but nevertheless had been a dramatic and moving experience - and just had to experience another one, whether it turned out to be clearly visible or not. The intervening total eclipses (including in Antarctica and Madagascar) were in the southern hemisphere and to witness those would have involved major investment of time and money.

Sue and I decided we should witness this eclipse on the sandy Mediterranean beach, close to the water's edge. We were not alone, although most people remained within the hotel's expansive grounds and gardens. The anticipation of the event was very high, some people staking their claim to a position hours before the eclipse.

'First contact' (when the moon's silhouette started to 'bite' into the bottom right of the sun's disc) occurred at 12.38pm. 'Second contact' (when the moon's silhouette first covered the sun's disc totally) was at 1.55pm. During this first phase the light and temperature dropped progressively, imperceptibly for much of the time, and then increasingly noticeably. By now it was getting cold, and the light was spooky - low contrast, and with a greyish hue. Shadows became fuzzy. All birds had flown off somewhere and fallen silent. Finally, the light dropped remarkably faster during the last few seconds - rather like dimming the lights in a theatre - yet its acceleration and silent, foreboding inevitability never ceases to amaze even the most hardened of eclipse chasers.

Now, we no longer needed to protect our eyes with the safety glasses when gazing upward, and we saw that the huge hemispherical sky was not completely dark and black but, with the exception of a narrow band above the horizon, a deep, deep blue, and only the moon's silhouette was black. The moon was surrounded by the glow of the sun and we could see long white 'streamers' radiating out from the sun, most prominently at top left and bottom right, as we viewed it, indicating a small portion of the sun's enormous magnetic field.

The indescribably beautiful sight of totality - photo by Miloslav Druckmüller

We could see three planets: Venus, by far the brightest; Mercury; and Mars. In fact Venus was visible for some minutes before and after totality. By this time Saturn had just risen above the eastern horizon but was not visible to us, and this was because it lay within the brightly-coloured band of sky akin to that seen immediately after the sun has set - red, orange, yellow - which eerily extended 360 degrees around us just as if the sun had set everywhere. We were, of course, peering out at distant daylight beyond the edge of the gigantic, 100-mile wide shadow of the moon.

Diamond ring at 2nd contact - Photo by Pete Lawrence

Start of totality. Note the prominence at top - Photo by Paul Yates

This incredibly beautiful spectacle lasted for 3mins 45 seconds, but it wasn't just the awesome sight which impressed. There was silence broken only by people speaking occasionally and in hushed tones. And then the voices grew even quieter as folks became increasingly overwhelmed by their emotions, and some were crying. Sue was shaking uncontrollably, and not just because of the cold. I became speechless with a lump in my throat, and I knew that if I tried to say anything meaningful I would end up blubbering! I defy anyone not to be overcome by the experience. The astronomers and 'anoraks' were gasping at the extent and beauty of the pattern of the sun's streamers and the images in their telescopes, and it was evident from hearing them that we were experiencing an exceptionally spectacular eclipse.

Totality. Extra exposure reveals streamers - Photo by Peter Vasey

A woman nearby left her husband and wandered into the sea for a leisurely ecliptic swim; was this a sudden impulse or had she long-dreamed of doing this?

'Third contact', when the sun starts to reappear, occurred all too soon. At the first hint of it people's voices started growing louder in anticipation of what was to follow, for we all knew that the sight of Bailey's Beads, and then the 'diamond ring', would be fleeting. No blinking now. The first we saw of the sun was the beads of light passing between gaps in the moon's mountains on the moon's bottom right edge,

Bailey's beads at 3rd contact - photo by Brian Woosnam

and these were rapidly followed by the appearance of the 'diamond', fantastically bright, which grew with increasing size and intensity very rapidly forcing us to revert to our safety glasses immediately.

Diamond ring at 3rd contact - Photo by Paul Yates

The growing voices were now shouting and cheering; more crying, clapping, hugging and kissing. Sue said it was like a rebirth, and she was right. The swimming woman rose serenely from the sea and returned silently to her husband for a long kiss and embrace. Surely there was never such mass peacetime emotion on a beach as now.

The inevitable rapid return of daylight and warmth seemed to be taken for granted by everyone and was not accompanied by the same feelings as the period before totality, and within just a few minutes, while there was talk of nothing but the profound experience we had all shared, many of us suddenly realised we were hungry and made our way in to the hotel to grab an overdue lunch.

Photo-montages showing complete sequence - by Ian Wardlaw

A good website for 2006 eclipse pictures, including most of those I have used to illustrate my account, is:

The website with the most stunning images is: http://www.zam.fme.vutbr.cz/~druck/Eclipse/Ecl2006th/0-info.htm

Sue and I wouldn't have missed this eclipse for anything. Later we heard folks who had travelled all over the world to twenty or more total solar eclipses exclaim that this one was the best they'd witnessed. Weren't we lucky? I thoroughly recommend the experience to everyone. It really is worth all the travelling time, inconvenience and expense, even if you spend just one day or night at the destination. A week or more's holiday would, of course, make more sense. Keeping these factors within sensible limits, the next four practicable opportunities for us Europeans are:

1: August 1, 2008, in Siberia, Mongolia and China. See: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/SEplot/SEplot2001/SE2008Aug01T.GIF

2: July 22, 2009, in India and Nepal. See: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/SEplot/SEplot2001/SE2009Jul22T.GIF

3: August 21, 2017, from the Pacific Ocean, right across the USA, to the Atlantic Ocean. See: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/SEplot/SEplot2001/SE2017Aug21T.GIF

4: April 8, 2024, again across the USA. See: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/SEplot/SEplot2001/SE2024Apr08T.GIF

If you would like to see NASA's information on all the solar eclipses (and you really need consider only the total ones) then start with this link: http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/eclipse.html

If any fellow Britons are thinking of waiting until the next total solar eclipse visible in Britain, they need to think again. There won't be one here until 2090 and it won't be very long lasting either. There will be several great ones visible in Britain throughout the 22nd century, but what consolation is that?


Holly Golightly said...

I knew this text. :-))))
I have already read it.
Do you remember that you sent it to me almost a year ago?

Fauna Amor said...

Quel joli texte!I don't like physics ou astronomy,but I love to look at the stars,with a telescop,but I always missed the eclipses...because I sleep.So,many thanks for sharing this with us.
(Don't look at the faults!!!)

Atticus said...

Thank you, Holly. Yes, I do remember, but I have made some small amendments since then. And, of course, the spectacular images add considerably to the description.

Thank you, Fauna. You are the first person I have encountered who doesn't like astronomy but likes to look at the stars through a telescope!

Thank you, both, for writing in English.

Le_peintre said...

Pendant une éclipse, il y a quelques années déjà, j'ai vécu le silence puis les voix et rires... mais il y a eu aussi le froid, comme si la température avait disparu avec le soleil.

Atticus said...

Merci, le peintre. En la Turkie la température baissait rapidement par environ 10 Celsius degrés.