Clouds Part for Solar Eclipse

For the 300 members of the Sky & Telescope/TravelQuest group touring in China, the weather gods delivered a miracle for the ages. “We had the privilege of a rare astronomical event — viewing a total solar eclipse in the rain!” says Eric Novotny of Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Tunç Tezel caught this picture of a monsoon eclipse near Jinshanwei, China.
Tun?ß Tezel
We experienced heavy rains from our base in the enormous coastal city of Shanghai the night before the eclipse. Weather prospects for Eclipse Day looked so foreboding that several members of our group split away and flew west on a domestic flight to the city of Wuhan. Canadian meteorologist Jay Anderson was traveling with our group, and based on his recommendation after analyzing weather-satellite data and computer models for the 22nd, we changed our itinerary. Instead of viewing the eclipse at our reserved coastal restaurant just south of Shanghai, we drove on several buses about 50 miles even further south. Jay had scouted out a rest stop on the south end of the magnificent Hangzhou Bay Bridge. At 22 miles in length, this recently finished bridge is the longest trans-oceanic bridges in the world.

After receiving 3:00 a.m. wake-up calls at our hotel and boarding our buses at 4:00, we arrived at the site around 6:30 and were greeted by completely overcast skies. But within an hour, the Sun started to occasionally poke through the clouds, giving us a ray of hope. Unfortunately, the clouds were thick enough to effectively hide the early stages of the eclipse.

A steady rain was falling at the S&T/TravelQuest observing site immediately before totality.
Robert Naeye
As we approached second contact (the onset of totality) at 9:36 a.m. local time, a steady rain started falling from the sky, and dark, low-level clouds completely obscured the Sun. With the situation appearing hopeless, people started to break down their telescopes and cameras. Thinking that a spectacular eclipse experience was totally beyond the realm of possibility, I looked all around to take in my surroundings. I could tell that the sky was getting noticeably darker, but it was impossible to separate the effects of the eclipse from those of the clouds.

Jay Pasachoff photographed the diamond ring from a mountain near Hangzhou, China.
Jay Pasachoff
Just a minute or two before second contact, the Sun started to poke through again, and we could see a deep partial eclipse. The sky started darkening rapidly, and I could feel a surge of optimism and energy in our group. Then boom, we could see Baily’s beads and a diamond ring through a thin haze, and suddenly the sky was pitch black. Against all expectations from just a few minutes earlier, we were seeing a total solar eclipse!

During the first minute or so of totality, we could see a glowing haze around the eclipsed Sun: the inner corona. But low-lying clouds were moving rapidly across the sky, occasionally obscuring the view completely. The eclipsed Sun came in and out during the entire 5 minutes of totality. Our amazingly good fortune continued when the sky cleared moments before third contact, allowing us to see a repeat performance of the diamond ring and Baily’s beads.

After totality ended, the sky brightened extremely rapidly despite the fact that clouds completely covered the Sun. The Sun never returned. All in all, we saw virtually nothing of the partial phases — but enough of the main act to leave everyone satisfied.

For me, the clouds prevented this event from rising anywhere near the level of the March 29, 2006, eclipse that I viewed in the Libyan desert. The murky skies ensured there would be no streamers, no easily visible prominences, no shadow bands, no discernible effects on the horizon, and no obvious lunar shadow rushing across the landscape. Views of the totally eclipsed Sun were brief and intermittent. Conditions for photography were extremely poor.

Ralph Megna flew at the last moment from Shanghai to Wuhan to obtain fine views of totality.
Ralph Megna
Still, nobody left disappointed, and I share this perspective from fellow tour member Connie Rush of Owasso, Oklahoma: “After an emotional roller-coaster ride in the early morning, the power of positive thinking won. We saw it; it counts.”

“Emotionally, going from certain disappointment to sudden gratification made this the most intense eclipse experience of my life,” says Murray Larsen of Lewiston, Idaho.

“I put my camera, filters, and viewer away, thinking the first total solar eclipse of my life would be clouds and brief darkness,” adds Tricia McNew of Selah, Washington. “Then the Sun peeked out, the rain stopped, and I got to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event, a diamond ring and complete totality with new friends and family. I will never forget the people dancing and cheering on the Sun.”

As I reflect on the experience a few hours later from my Shanghai hotel room, I’m amazed we saw anything through the clouds. Yeah, it won’t be the greatest eclipse of my lifetime. But I have made wonderful new friends, experienced the incredible energy of a great nation on the rise, and saw enough beautiful eclipse effects to satiate my hunger for at least another year. Chinese tour guide Judy Zhu told us that Shanghai was completely clouded out, so I give Jay Anderson my deepest thanks for giving our group a slim chance to see this eclipse. That “slim chance” was all that we needed; Mother Nature did the rest.

6 thoughts on “Clouds Part for Solar Eclipse

  1. Zbigniew ZEMBATY

    This is just to add new information
    When we woke up July 22nd at 6 a.m. in Wuhan we realized that the thin patch of white clouds almost copletely covered the firmament. So we took a taxi and went westbound reaching proximity of Xiantao (100km west of Wuhan) soon before the totality. Between the patches of clouds there were extended clear and blue areas. You can imagine how happy we were when we realized that 1 minute before totality one of such blue areas moved onto the Sun! So we had just 15 minutes of clear sky around the Sun right when we needed it. So during the whole totality we could observe the eclpse without any clouds.
    We put selected pictures at this link
    http://foto.onet.pl/5mvyu,o0oo0gsod40g,u.html
    best regards
    Zbigniew ZEMBATY & Lukasz CHUDY

  2. Adam Alexander

    I travelled with a friend to Hanngzhou and spent the 22nd recceing for a suitable place to view the eclipse, eventually decding on a hilltop above the town reached by a cable car. But we had a plan B. The morning of the eclipse was forbidding but at 6.30 we arrived at the cable car and reached the summit on the first ride just after 7 am. The weather was overcast and the handful of people already on teh hill despondent. We recieved a call from a freind who was with the S&T group to say the weather was better further east so we quickly descended, roused our sleeping driver and tried to get across town before first contact. The traffic was awful, but then the Hangzhou taxi mafia telegraph got into action. Another driver had an English group with him and were about 30km west of the city under relatively clear skies. We turned around and raced westward. Our viewpoint was a layby in a housing estate next to the freeway. There was thin high cloud but we were able to see the entire event. As we approached second contact the birds went to roost, Venus appeared and we were able to enjoy a fine corona. I was able to observe prominences on the NW quadrant, one spectacular hoop about 40 seconds before third contact. I guess we were particularly lucky, thanks to some good local intelligence and the power of the mobile phone.

  3. Paul Ely

    The Costa Classica eclipse cruise was greeted with pure clear skies and glassy seas 40 miles NE of Iwo Jima. Steaming at 8 knots, we saw the complete eclipse from 1st to 4th contact with totality lasting 6 min. and 42.3 secs. Photos have been posted on my home server at:
    http://pmely.homeserver.com/eclipse2009

    Photos of two other members of our cruise, Paul Rapp and Daniele fron Italy are also there as well as mine using a Canon T1I with a Tamron 200mm w/ 1.4X converter.

    Kelly Beatty was one of several veterans and dignitaries of the cruise.

  4. Charlie

    Our group was also in the Shanghai area and we also moved to seek clearer skies. In fact, we had just stopped for a break at the same rest stop when the Sky & Tel buses pulled in.

    Our plan was to move closer to the coast so we headed out towards Ning Bo. The clouds thinned about halfway there and we saw our first glimpse of the sun (raising our hopes immensely) but it soon vanished as the clouds thickened around the coastal hills.

    In Ning Bo, the clouds were thin enough to see the sun and looked to be thinning. We set up in one corner of a shopping plaza parking lot and waited for first contact, which we saw right on schedule.

    The partial phases were visible through the thin cloud but the amount of cloud made photography difficult.

    Second contact brought us lots of Bailey’s Beads and a beautiful long lasting diamond ring. A single prominence was visible once the sun was totally eclipsed. The inner corona, out to about 1 solar diameter, was delicately detailed including polar brushes. The approaching shadow had been visible between the plaza and an adjacent building and the edge of the shadow after 2nd contact was well delineated in the sky.

    Dark side lunar features were a little hazy, but the moon itself looked significantly bigger than normal.

    Venus was easily visible as was Mercury, although the latter came and went with the clouds.

    3rd contact came way too soon and we saw a repeat of the beads, although the diamond ring didn’t seem to last as long. The following partial phases played tag with the clouds, but we weren’t paying much attention at this point – we were thrilled that we were able to see an eclipse that we thought would succumb to the weather.

    Kudos to our team leaders Don & Glen from Calgary Centre RASC for, once again, guiding us to a successful eclipse. For us, in Ning Bo, totality was 4 min 30 sec, shorter than what we’d hoped for, but far better than the 0 minutes we would have seen had we not moved.

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