Friday August 18, 2017

How an amateur astronomer got hooked on solar eclipses

Science writer Dan Falk fondly remembers his very first eclipse in Mexico in 1991.

Science writer Dan Falk fondly remembers his very first eclipse in Mexico in 1991. (Sara Desjardins Photography)

Listen 8:31

Read Story Transcript

Science journalist Dan Falk has been eagerly anticipating this solar eclipse for many years. He's been to four total solar eclipses in his life, and each of them has been special.  

But it was his very first total eclipse, back in the summer of 1991, that left the deepest impression.

Here is Falk's personal essay on how he got hooked chasing the moon's shadow:

I was an astronomy nerd from the very beginning.  I was a teenager when I got my first telescope.  But no matter how many star clusters or galaxies I looked at, no matter how often I gazed at the rings of Saturn, I knew that the ultimate prize was something I'd never seen: a total eclipse of the sun.

I grew up in Halifax but I was too young to see the pair of solar eclipses that were visible from Nova Scotia in the early 1970s. And I was still just in junior high school when North America had its next big solar eclipse, in the winter of 1979.  I remember tuning in to CBC Television to watch the coverage from Brandon, Manitoba.

84408073

To see the total solar eclipse in its totality, you'll have to be in the so-called "path of totality," a narrow strip of land stretching across the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina. (Pablo Blazquez/Getty Images)

Now, a total solar eclipse can be seen from somewhere in the world roughly once every 18 months.  But in practice, the "path of totality" — the stretch of land from which you can actually see it — is often very far from home. 

For me, as a teenager, the big one to look forward to was the eclipse of August 11, 1991. The path of totality for that eclipse was going to pass through Hawaii and parts of Mexico.  And it was going to be one of the longest eclipses of the century — it was going to last almost seven minutes.

So I just had to wait it out.  The 1980s came and went.  Finally, we were into the 90s and at last, the big eclipse was on the horizon. I ended up joining a tour led by a group of Canadian amateur astronomers, members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. They chartered a plane that would take us from Toronto to Mexico, and eventually to a town called Santiago, near the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula.

AFP_8L5S6

Dan Falk chartered a plane that would take him from Toronto to Mexico, and eventually to a town called Santiago, near the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, to see a total solar eclipse in 1991. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images)

Eventually, the partial phase of the eclipse begins.  The moon starts to take a "bite" out of the sun.  And then, gradually, over the next 90 minutes, that "bite" gets bigger and bigger. But it's not until the moon has almost completely covered the sun that things really start to get weird.

'The whole landscape suddenly gets darker. The temperature drops. Shadows become shapes.' - Dan Falk

The whole landscape suddenly gets darker. The temperature drops. Shadows become shapes. Colours become more muted and animals get confused because they think night is coming in the middle of the day. And then, finally, that last little sliver of sunlight disappears and the total phase of the eclipse begins.  This is the main attraction.  This is what you travelled for thousands of miles to see. That is, assuming the weather co-operates.

In Mexico, the day had started off sunny and clear. But as we got closer to totality, we had some bad luck.  Clouds had built up above our observing site.  It was clear on the horizon, but because of the temperature drop along the path of totality, there was enough condensation to form a patch of very annoying clouds right above our heads.  

Curacao eclipse 1998

Dan Falk has seen three total solar eclipses since 1991, one of which he saw from the Caribbean island of Curacao in 1998. (Dan Falk)

But, all was not lost: the clouds were patchy and they were moving with the wind. So it became a waiting game. We gawked in the direction of the eclipsed sun and relished in every second during those gaps between the clouds. Normally, one of the highlights of a total eclipse is having a look at the solar corona — the sun's tenuous outer atmosphere.  In fact, that's something that scientists continue to study, because there's a lot about the corona that we still don't understand and you can only see it during an eclipse.

'I wasn't just an amateur astronomer anymore.  Now, I was an eclipse chaser.  I was hooked.' - Dan Falk

In Mexico, we couldn't see the corona, because of the clouds. But we did get to see huge "solar prominences" — giant plumes of gas that shoot up from the surface of the sun. The clouds made it hard to observe the beginning of totality, but our luck seemed to be improving as we got closer to the end of totality — that moment when the sun would re-appear from behind the moon.

Less than seven minutes after totality had begun, it was over.  The daylight started to come back.

But something had changed. 

Easter Island Eclipse 2010

The last total solar eclipse Dan Falk witnessed was from Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in 2010. (Dan Falk)

I wasn't just an amateur astronomer anymore.  Now, I was an eclipse chaser.  I was hooked.

I've been privileged to have seen three more total solar eclipses since then, from the Caribbean island of Curacao in 1998, from Salzburg, Austria, in 1999 and from Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in 2010.

'Every eclipse you go to, you remember. And while presidents and prime ministers come and go, the solar system stays on schedule.' - Dan Falk

I've mentioned the rarity of solar eclipses and the spectacle, but there's something else too. I like the way they punctuate our lives.  Every eclipse you go to, you remember. And while presidents and prime ministers come and go, the solar system stays on schedule. It's dependable in a way that few things down here on earth are.  And sure, the weather sometimes disappoints… but the solar system doesn't.

And yes: I'll be in the path of totality on August 21st. And I hope you will be too.

If not, well, there's always next time. The eclipse of April 8, 2024 will cut right through eastern Canada.  We know exactly where the moon's shadow is going to be seven years from now and you can use that time to think about where you're going to be.

Listen to the full essay near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Josh Bloch.