A Total Solar Eclipse Experience

21 st June 2001, The Day with Two Sunsets 


Above: A view of how the actual sky around the eclipsed Sun looked during totality (black disk is the Moon covering Sun). The colour of the sky also looks approximately the same as it actually was. Such pictures are made by using special photographic techinques such as differently timed exposures (visit Wendy Carlos Page), or using special variable density filters (see Nasa eclipse information).

Photo of Dr. Jiwaji with Prof. Jay Pasachoff, one of the prominent scientists who came to Lusaka to study the eclipse (see his Williams College Eclipse Expedition page).

This is a picture showing the diamond ring pictured with a special lens effect. This beautiful picture is quite unique and has been supplied by Brian Fraser and co. of South Africa. For more pictures visit: South African group's eclipse pictures

Above is a series of pictures of the various phases of the total solar eclipse taken in Lusaka by a South African group of Brian Fraser and co., starting from first contact through the diamond ring stage and totality and upto just after totality ended.

Between 1:25 p.m. and 4:29 p.m., in the perfectly clear skies of the Zambian midriff, millions of fascinated people turned their eyes towards the western skies, spellbound and awestruck, as the bright cool sunny afternoon of Thursday 21st June 2001 turned dark as if the day was ending. During this period, the path of the total solar eclipse, defined by the Moon’s dark 200-kilometer wide shadow raced right across the middle of Zambia at more than 1000 kilometers per hour having first touched land in Angola and then into Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Madagascar; ending finally at local sunset somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Though most people had been properly forewarned, the sight of the light slowly fading away in the middle of a bright sunny day brought many to their knees, praying to the almighty for deliverance. Nobody within recent memory had witnessed such a peculiar event. It was also a confusing experience for the animals: birds were seen to return to their roosts and animals started preparing to go to sleep. Nocturnal birds and animals suddenly came to life and prepared to start their night activities. The temperature dropped rapidly as the sunlight faded.

As the last bit of the sun began to be covered by the Moon, a few points of light could be fleetingly seen around the Sun’s edge. This effect is called Bailey’s Beads and is caused by pinpoints of the last rays of sunlight that are able to penetrate through the lowest valleys in the Moon’s edge. A momentary string of beads was formed by this effect. The sky around the sun became darker and one could begin to view the eclipse with the naked eyes. When the last Bailey’s Bead was left, a beautiful “diamond ring” effect could be seen as the last bit of light slid through the Moon’s shadow. In the picture, you can see this diamond ring effect (however a camera lens effect has also produced star-like rays of light radiating from the “diamond”).

A few moments later, the Moon covered the Sun completely and it suddenly turned dark and day turned into night as Africa permanently entered the record books as host to the first total solar eclipse of the new millennium. The eclipse of 21st June 2001 also became one of the clearest seen in recent times with eclipse chasers claiming it to be rather “uneventful” since they were used to chasing the clouds during previous eclipses in order to get a clear view of totality. As eclipses go, this eclipse was not as dark as to produce a truly night effect. It was more like dusk with the distant horizon lit by the Sun outside the Moon’s shadow. The temperature dropped by nearly 10 degrees to almost 15 degrees Centigrade and it became distinctly chilly.

It was the beginning of three minutes of an experience of a lifetime. The sky around the Sun was filled with wispy filaments that could be seen with the naked eyes. These filaments form the solar corona, which is part of the Sun’s atmosphere that can reach temperatures of up to two million degrees. Within the corona close to the Sun’s edge, people with telescopes and binoculars could see the bright loops of solar prominences. These are huge arches of flames ejected from deep within the Sun and emptying its contents back into the another part of the Sun or sometimes hurling its violent contents out into space in the form of high energy charged cosmic particles.

The long three-minute interval of amazement finally came to an end with the diamond ring appearing on the other side followed momentarily by Bailey’s Beads and soon the ‘king of the heavens’ asserted its dominance by piercing the darkness with intensely strong rays of light. People quickly donned their special sunglasses and watched the Moon’s shadow slowly uncovering the face of the Sun. You suddenly realize that you have actually witnessed the actual movement of a heavenly body; that is, we have been able to observe a noticeable movement of the Moon as it moved across the face of the Sun.

One of the mysteries of science is how the Sun’s atmosphere can reach such high temperatures although its surface is at only 6,000 degrees. For astronomers and scientists the occurrence of a total solar eclipse is a boon since it provides the only opportunity to study the Sun’s corona from the Earth. Thousands of dollars are spent hauling tons of equipment over thousands of kilometers, sometimes to remote regions of the earth to achieve this goal. Scientists have to deal with many difficulties in doing outdoor experiments and cope with the vagaries of instrument performance.

One of the more prominent researchers who is studying the solar corona is Prof. Jay Pasachoff of the Williams College. The Lusaka eclipse expedition was his 32nd total solar eclipse mission and he tested one of the main hypotheses; that vibrating magnetic field lines in the solar corona, which may oscillate as rapidly as once per second, transmit energy into the coronal gas and increase its temperature to millions of degrees centigrade. This in turn would help us understand better the powerhouse inside the Sun which would allow us to predict better the timing of the onslaught of extremely high energy cosmic particles ejected by the prominences on the Sun especially during peaks of solar activity which occur every eleven years. At the moment we are in the middle of the peak of solar activity so we are constantly faced with the prospect of high-energy charged particles traveling close to the speed of light causing havoc to satellites, telecommunication equipment and the electricity grid. With our utter dependence on technology, unpredictable solar storms can easily paralyze life in our modern society.

The Sun’s effect on our own atmosphere can also be better studied during totality when the main beam of the Sun’s rays is temporarily blocked out. Dr. Arvind Parnjpye of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics of India used a relatively simple setup made from his team’s own design to measure the variation of overhead sky radiance during the whole eclipse. Some scientists used huge antennae to measure radio emissions while a young technician with the University of Zambia Agricultural Engineering Department Mr. Michael Zulu had set up a solarimeter to measure the variation of global radiation during the period of the eclipse.

Though the appearance of the corona signals the beginning of a very valuable three-minute period for the scientists, it was a different story for the millions of ordinary people. For some it was a time to relax and enjoy the national holiday declared by the Zambian government just the day before. Thousands of people gathered in designated eclipse viewing sites and participated in the collective euphoria that had engulfed the nation. Using special glasses and by means of pinhole projections people watched the Sun being slowly eaten up by the Moon. In towns and villages people braved their own doubts and fears about the eclipse and came out of their houses to experience this rare wonder of nature and to marvel its intricacies. Those who managed to see the “day of two sunsets” will indeed be a rare breed and will have exciting stories to tell their grandchildren. The chance of experiencing two eclipses in one’s lifetime from the same part of the world is extremely rare. Many believers saw God’s presence and bowed in awe of the Almighty.

A special ceremony was performed on the banks of the Zambezi by the Ngoni people whose forefathers had crossed into the present Zambia during a similar total solar eclipse in 1835, while fleeing the pursuing armies of Shaka Zulu. They reenacted the events leading up to the journey but the crossing itself was done by boats rather than the method used 166 years ago of holding on to the tails of cows.

Though lack of written records has resulted in much of the traditional knowledge being remembered as myths and legends, there is a concerted effort to look for other clues to the understanding and practice of Astronomy in Africa. For example a recent finding in an extremely remote region of northern Kenya of a stone “observatory” built by an unknown people shows an intricate understanding of the motion of the Sun, Moon and the stars and with this knowledge created an accurate lunar calendar still used by the Borana people of southern Ethiopia. The ruins of Great Zimbabwe have structures within it that have astronomical significance while moon shapes in ancient cave paintings in Tanzania also appear to have an astronomical significance. The meteorite in Mbozi in Mbeya region evokes strong debates about its origins. The starlore of the people of southern Africa uses a completely different set of shapes and figures to form constellations. Rather than the Gods and princes of Greek legends they use familiar animal figures such as giraffes and elephants. It is would be quite interesting to study what stories the people of our eastern African region have weaved around the stars.

Zambia also had the fortune of hosting tens of thousands of tourists and amateur astronomers who flocked to the country to take advantage of the most conducive weather for a guaranteed view of the eclipse. Due to an overflow of tourists and lack of accommodation in and around Lusaka, thousands of tourists, many from neighbouring countries arrived in well-planned excursions on the day of the eclipse and returned to their homes the same day. A few tourists crossed over into Tanzania after eclipse to savour our treasures as a dessert. Tanzania has certainly lost out on this lucrative opportunity of raking in tourist revenue by routing the eclipse tourists through Tanzania on their way to Lusaka.

In Tanzania, the Moon’s penumbral shadow covered the Sun partially by between 60 and 80 percent for northern and southern observers respectively. However due to high proportion of sunlight still coming through the partially eclipsed Sun and combined with intermittent interruptions by clouds, the effect of the eclipse could not be readily detected at ground level. In spite of warnings not to look at the Sun directly except by using special methods, many people appeared to use any available filter to view the Sun not knowing that though such filters allowed them to see the dimmed face of the Sun by blocking out most of the visible light, a lot of harmful ultraviolet radiation will have passed through such filters. Its effects on peoples’ eyes may still become noticeable in the long term.

Though we know that total solar eclipses are rare events, it is not appreciated that it is only due to an extraordinary coincidence of nature that such eclipses even occur! Though the actual size of the Sun and the Moon are totally dissimilar, both appear to have the same size as seen from Earth. Both have the same apparent size with an angular diameter of about half a degree. So when we observe them from the ground, and if they are exactly aligned with Earth, the Moon can cover the Sun exactly. This alignment itself is also quite incredible if you consider the fact that the Moon is 60 million times smaller than the Sun and is positioned 150 million kilometers away from it! It is truly a wonder of nature that we observe one or two solar and one or two lunar eclipses every year.

So let us make the most of such natural spectacles and learn to appreciate the world that we live in. The next total solar eclipse will also occur next year in southern Africa on December 4, 2002, but it will be of much shorter duration and will take place during the rainy season so the chances of observing totality are much lower than for this year’s Lusaka spectacle. A small area in Angola that experienced full totality this year will again experience the amazing spectacle next year also! After 2002, we will have to wait nearly 30 years for another total solar eclipse to occur so close to home.

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