May’s Unusual Solar Eclipse

Annular Solar Eclipse
Amateur astronomer Snaevarr Gudmundsson observed the May 31st annular eclipse from a small plane over Iceland and shot this picture out the window using a Nikon digital camera.
Courtesy Snaevarr Gudmundsson.
Reports are beginning to trickle in from observers located in the path of annularity during the solar eclipse on Saturday, May 31st, which crossed Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland. The event was also widely seen as a partial eclipse throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the northwestern corner of North America. Because of the extraordinary geometry of this eclipse (the Moon's umbral shadow actually passed over the north polar region before reaching the Earth's surface), the shadow swept from east to west as the eclipse progressed, rather than the far more typical west to east.

John Flannery of Ireland's South Dublin Astronomical Society traveled more than 500 miles (300 kilometers) to view the eclipse from Durness in northwestern Scotland. "It was well worth the trip," he writes. "We watched from a clifftop observing site where about 30 to 40 others had gathered to view the spectacle. Low clouds prevented us from seeing the Sun rising in eclipse, but it cleared the top of the cloudbank sufficiently for us to catch the last moments of annularity. We were also treated to a beautiful eclipsed crescent filtered by gossamer-thin cloud."

Partial Solar Eclipse
For observers in Europe the May 31st solar eclipse was partial, not annular. Near Vienna, Austria, Peter Wienerroither recorded the eclipsed Sun amid clouds at sunrise using a Canon EOS 10D digital camera.
Courtesy Peter Wienerroither.
Several groups based their expeditions in Iceland, where the entire island was covered by the path of the Moon's shadow and the annular phase lasted more than 3½ minutes. But many observers there had to watch the event unfold through coastal fog or clouds. Paul Maley of Houston, Texas, observed from Olafsfjordur, where the eclipsed Sun hovered just a few degrees above the horizon. "Temperature was a brisk 6°C [43°F], and the sky was literally 95% overcast," he reports. Nevertheless, he did see what he traveled to Iceland for. "At central eclipse a small, thin cloud bisected part of the annulus, leaving the rest relatively easy to see."

Solar-eclipse expert Jay Pasachoff, astronomy professor Thorsteinn Saemundsson, amateur astronomer Snaevarr Gudmundsson, and more than a dozen other enthusiasts decided not to leave Iceland's weather to chance. They took to the air in a small plane and flew north of Reykjavik, where they witnessed annularity at an altitude of 1,800 feet (550 meters), with the eclipsed Sun sandwiched between two cloud layers. For Pasachoff, it was solar eclipse number 36.

The only other eclipse of the Sun this year will occur on November 23rd, when a total eclipse sweeps across Antarctica. Partial phases for that event will be visible from New Zealand, Australia, and southern South America.