An Eclipse of the Sun occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun. Basically, the shadow of the moon moves on a path over the earth’s surface. Depending on where you are, you might see a chunk bitten out of the sun by the moon, because you are only in the partial shadow (penumbra), or the disc of the moon covering the disc of the sun – the total eclipse, because you are in the full shadow.
I had 1999 on my mind for all the years I was growing up. The first solar eclipse I witnessed, a partial one, I saw in the school playground, and it must have been around 1960 to 62. At that stage we learnt that the next total eclipse to be seen in Britain would be in the unimaginably remote year of 1999 – and it was only going to be in the south-westernmost tip, in Cornwall. Visions of England tipping into the sea as the entire population fled to Cornwall filled my brain for some time.
By 1996 I was starting to plan, and thinking I needed to be in Scotland until the weekend before it. This could be tricky. By 1998 I knew I was going to be in London. When the time came, I watched the partial eclipse with my friends and a lot of other people, in Kensington Gardens, opposite the Royal Albert Hall. It was weird the way everything went quiet, the birds and squirrels stopped moving about, even the traffic noise seemed to dim as the sunlight faded.
As it happened, the weather in Cornwall was total cloud cover. You needed to be at sea or in the Channel Islands to catch a brief glimpse of totality! But I had missed that longed-for total eclipse.
Some time in 2010 or 2011, I was looking through some stuff and noticed a trip to Longyearbyen (78N 15E) in the islands of Svalbard, (Spitzbergen) up in the Arctic Circle. It was a short trip for an astonishing (to me) amount of money, to witness a total eclipse of the sun, in the Arctic Circle, at the spring equinox, with a chance of seeing polar bears, arctic foxes, and the Northern Lights as well. I booked it about three weeks later. I did, after all, have four years to save up for it!
It turned out that this was a 1 in 400,000 year event – an eclipse on the equinox which was visible at the north pole and with a moon at perigee which meant its shadow exactly covered the sun’s disc. It was very cold – -21 C or -6 F. And the temperature dropped during the two minutes of eclipse. Cameras froze. Fingers nearly froze…
But this is what I saw!
But the most amazing thing about the total eclipse is the connection it gives you with the universe. You really feel you are on a rock spinning through space with the sun and the moon going round you. It’s mind-blowing. It’s almost spiritual. But I suspect that’s best kept secret.
Pictures by me except for header by Peter Almond.