16 January 2010


Yesterday an annular solar eclipse was visible in parts of Africa, eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Solar eclipses come in several geometries (see illustration above) and resulting visual effects, as described here.

In February 1979 I journeyed from my home in southern Arizona to visit my parents in northern Montana, timing the trip for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a total solar eclipse, whose path of totality arced across the U.S. Pacific Northwest and into Canada, passing within a few hours' drive of my home town. Beforehand I researched the sequence of visual effects to expect, and scripted how best to photograph them with my trusty old workhorse Pentax Spotmatic 35mm SLR camera, telephoto lens and tripod.

Knowing that I had just shy of three minutes in which to shoot, I ran rehearsals of shutter speeds and lens openings before ever leaving home. On the day of the eclipse, 26 February, my dad and I drove to a point which lay in the exact center of the path of totality. The Montana prairie in winter is cold by any standard, so having found an ideal viewing position on a ridge, we stayed in the vehicle to keep the camera warm until it was time to set up. I was ready within moments, and as the moment drew near, an eerie quiet settled onto the landscape. I noticed a herd of whitetail deer dashing about in panic, and would later hear that dogs had started howling in nearby Lewistown.

Then it came. A small, dark bite in the sun's side became larger as the moon began to occlude the sun's disk. Light appeared to shimmer on the ground, and then the lunar shadow appeared in the west, sweeping like a silent curtain toward us at the speed of the earth's rotation (at our latitude, probably around 700-800 mph). Almost before I could breathe, we were in a landscape of darkness, surrounded on all horizons by an unearthly salmon-colored light. I was able to take pictures on automatic pilot, while simultaneously looking up (safely) at the sun for the spectacular visual effects of a total eclipse -- Bailey's beads, the diamond ring effect, the sun's corona (see photo below, click to enlarge). Like most people, including those who become global eclipse chasers, I experienced a natural high, a heightened flow of adrenaline and endorphins and who knows what else. Normally taciturn, after the event I was babbling like a happy idiot.

At midpoint of totality, the sequence of visual events started to reverse themselves, until sure enough, from the west that dark curtain receded toward us as the moon's shadow passed on, revealing a day that was far from normal. I was giddy for hours, and (in those pre-digital photography days) came away from it with some pretty impressive photos, and indelible memories.

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