Chasing the total eclipse across the Pacific Oceanby Frank Close / January 4, 2013 / Leave a comment
Total solar eclipse: “like a black sunflower with the most delicate of silver petals”
What is the most beautiful natural phenomenon that you have ever seen? A brilliant rainbow set against a distant storm, or a blood red sky just after sunset, perhaps? But anyone who has experienced the diamond ring effect that heralds the start of a total solar eclipse will agree it puts all others in the shade.
About once every 18 months, the moon passes directly between the sun and earth. As the moon moves slowly across the face of the sun, it casts a shadow on the earth’s surface about 100 miles in diameter, which is the distance from one horizon to another. As our planet spins in its daily round, the shadow rushes across land and sea at about 2000 miles an hour. Those beneath it as it passes see, for a few minutes, night brought to the dome of the sky directly overhead. Looking up myopically, you would see stars as if it were normal night, accompanied by an awesome sight: a circle of profound blackness, a veritable hole in the sky, surrounded by shimmering white light, like a black sunflower with the most delicate of silver petals. One watcher described it to me as like “looking into the valley of death with the lights of heaven far away calling for me to enter.”
There is a slow build-up to the show, as the moon gradually covers the sun, which becomes a thin crescent as darkness falls. Then as totality approaches, excitement mounts. After the thrill of the eclipse you can’t wait to do it again, but wait you must until that exquisite alignment of sun, moon and earth comes around once more, and when it does you must go to the thin arc where the moon’s shadow momentarily sweeps across a small part of the globe.
I have just returned from seeing my fifth total eclipse, where I was reacquainted with people whom I had met on previous occasions: Polynesia in 2009, the Sahara in 2006, Zambia in 2001 and Cornwall in 1999. I had passed up on an opportunity to go to the Antarctic or the North Pole, to witness others, but our group included veterans of nearly a score of eclipses, who had visited places that they would never otherwise have…