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Atlas Quest

Solar Eclipse Theme

Marjorie with a solar eclipse on her back instead of the earth

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and the earth. The moon casts a long shadow, covering a small portion of the earth in an eclipse. Partial eclipses, when the moon only partially covers the area of the sun, are (relatively speaking) rather common. Total solar eclipses, however, when the moon completely blocks the surface of the sun, are legends that movies are made from. At least two and up to five solar eclipses occur each year on Earth, with between zero and two of them being total eclipses. The total solar eclipses are only visible from a narrow band along the earth’s surface, and only for a maximum of a few minutes from any one spot on the earth, and often times not even for one full minute.

The total solar eclipse, therefore, is a rare and exciting phenomenon. During totality, you can witness what looks like a sunset 360 degrees around the horizon. The temperature drops. Animals such as birds go nuts, unsure of what’s happening. Immediately before and after totality you might see what are called shadow bands, thin wavy alternating parallel lines of light and dark across the earth’s surface. If you have a good view of the horizon, you might even be able to see the enormous shadow of the moon rushing across the landscape to envelope you.

Just before totality, when the last rays of the sun squeeze through a valley or dip in the moon’s surface, Baley’s beads form, like bright diamonds along the edge of the moon. The last Baley bead tends to create the ‘diamond ring’ effect—a spectacular burst of light a second or so before totality.

During totality, you’ll be able to see bright stars and planets that normally are not visible during the daylight. Almost all photos and videos you’ll see of a total solar eclipse aren’t particularly accurate representations of what a total solar eclipse truly looks like. Film is unable to capture the sharp contrasts and movements visible during an eclipse. The most accurate-looking photos are actually composites of several photos with varying exposures. Blue and white streams glimmer and dance around the moon, and nowhere does the sky ever look like night—more like dusk 360° around the horizon.

It is safe to view a total solar eclipse with the naked eye, but only during complete totality. During the partial phases of the eclipse, you should wear proper eye protection. It’s not until the sun is almost completely covered you would likely even notice something strange was amiss. It doesn’t get noticeably cooler or darker until very close to totality.

Diagram of a solar eclipse
A diagram of a solar eclipse. The area within the umbra causes a total solar eclipse. The view of the sun from within the penumbra will appear as a partial eclipse.

If you are lucky enough to witness a total solar eclipse, take my advice: Don’t take pictures. Totality is absolutely amazing to witness, and it will last mere minutes. If you spend all your time trying to get photos, you’ll miss the real thing, and the photos will never match up to what you remember seeing with your own two eyes. There will be plenty of others out there taking photos—ask for a copy and you get the photos while still being able to enjoy the entire eclipse with your own two eyes. (Or one eye, if that happens to be the case!) Or buy a newspaper the next day. It’ll have a photo for your scrapbooks!

There is another type of solar eclipse known as the annular eclipse. The distance from the earth to the moon and the earth to the sun varies due to ecliptical orbits, and from our point of view, the apparent size of the moon and sun vary a bit over time. At times, the sun will appear to be slightly larger than the moon, and at this point, you can see the sun completely encircling the moon. These eclipses do not tend to be nearly as spectacular as a total solar eclipse since the sun is not completely obscured by the moon and cannot safely be viewed with the naked eye. They are strange things to behold, however, and Amanda and I—while watching an annular eclipse in Panama—rashly pulled off our eye protection. The eclipse was mostly obscured with clouds, however, and between the eclipse covering most of the sun and the clouds obscuring what little of the sun could be seen, we took the risk and threw caution to the wind. (And it was freakin’ awesome!) To date, neither of us have gone blind, but technically speaking, we shouldn’t have done that. =) Nor would we have done so had there not been lots of clouds dimming the eclipse.

Then there are hybrid eclipses, where part of the eclipse path will be total and part of it will be annular. Since the earth is round, as the eclipse moves across the surface of the earth, the distance for the shadow to reach the surface of the earth changes, so an eclipse can change from annular to total or vice versa during the course of a single eclipse. The eclipse Amanda and I watched in Panama started as an annular eclipse, changed to total midway through, then went back to being an annular eclipse—all part of the same eclipse!

And finally, there are partial eclipses, where the earth only passes through the penumbra. These are, relatively speaking, extremely boring events. You would likely never even notice when one happens, and they cannot be viewed with the naked eye. This theme will only be shown when there is a total, annular, or hybrid eclipse. It’s not worthy for a mere partial eclipse!

Want to see an eclipse? Here’s a list of upcoming eclipses through 2030:

DateMaximum DurationTypeGeographical Area
Jun 21, 20200m 38sannularDemocratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, Empty Quarter, Oman, southern Pakistan, northern India, New Delhi, Tibet, southern China, Chongqing, Taiwan
Dec 14, 20202m 10stotalsouthern Chile and Argentina, Kiribati, Polynesia
Jun 10, 20213m 51sannularnorthern Canada, Greenland, Russia
Dec 4, 20211m 54stotalAntarctica
Apr 20, 20231m 16shybridIndonesia, Australia, Papua New Guinea
Oct 14, 20235m 17sannularWestern United States, central America, Colombia, Brazil
Apr 8, 20244m 28stotalMexico, central United States, east Canada
Oct 2, 20247m 25sannularsouth Chile, south Argentina
Feb 17, 20262m 20sannularAntarctica
Aug 12, 20262m 18stotalArctic, Greenland, Iceland, Spain
Feb 6, 20277m 51sannularChile, Argentina, Atlantic
Aug 2, 20276m 23stotalMorocco, Spain, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia
Jan 26, 202810m 27sannularEcuador, Peru, Brazil, Suriname, Spain, Portugal
Jul 22, 20285m 10stotalAustralia, New Zealand
June 1, 20305m 21sannularAlgeria, Tunisia, Greece, Turkey, Russia, north China, Japan
Nov 25, 20303m 44stotalBotswana, South Africa, Australia
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