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Total Solar Eclipse 21. Jun 2001 in Africa: Report

Introduction. This was a quite perfect one! After the half-disappointment in 1999 here in Germany I decided to go for a fully visible eclipse in a climatic zone, which offers a fairly good chance to see it 100%, opposed to central European conditions. Read carefully, because I didn't waste any time with cameras or telescopes, only binocular glasses with 10x50 (10 times magnification, 5 cm aperture) were used by me shortly during totality... So I could make the most out of that event personally and succeeded in doing so!

prelude in two acts

Few days before the eclipse I saw like 1999 in the morning sky once again the moon several times, indicating the countdown to the eclipse by the waning sun lit part. After travelling to the observation point and preparing for the event the strangely "moving" sun (keep in mind, that southern from Earths equator the sun culminates in the North instead of South, which results in an opposite daily movement pattern!) was followed by us accurately hours even before the partial eclipse began. It's important, to account for the direction and height before such an event, to avoid obstacles of any kind (trees, luckily there were few and only small in height; other observers in vicinity, but we all let some place in between, sufficient for that total eclipse solar height).

Finally the tension builds up again: the absolutely clear sky lets no doubts at all, that we will see the eclipse entirely and fine; and then the final countdown begins: the tiny part of the moons disk appearing on the suns disk is greeted by all of us notably. Most people using the special dark slide glasses watch now more or less often, how the remaining part of the visible solar photosphere retreats more and more behind the dark moon too. In the early stages the progress is easy to recognize, and after about 10 minutes it was already visible again: the moons disk aiming straight for the center of the suns disk... Rather strange is the non-visibility of anything else in these early moments of a total solar eclipse: the slight light reduction can't be recognized at all, absolutely nothing indicates, what will happen there more than one hour ahead.

final countdown: the sunlight is vanishing more and more

From about 20 to 70 % (estimated) solar photosphere coverage the progress of the eclipse seems to be slow, and there are hardly any visible effects besides the growing coverage of the suns disk by the moon. But then in the later stages the sunlight illuminating the region becomes not only fainter, but also an unusual pale impression emerges: the remaining visible part of the solar photosphere in crescent shape creates also weird shadows; depending from the angle of objects in the sunlight these shadows appear sharp or considerable fuzzy, because the usual symmetry of illumination by a largely homogenous disk shaped light source has gone. The tension grows further, the camera observers become more busy and the speaker of the observation site gets more and more anxious for the event too. Then only few minutes remain to the second contact, to the contact. Despite trying hard I can't see the phenomenon called flying shadows yet; the sunglasses are already taken away, only direct observation of the small sun crescent still needs the light protection devices. Someone wears a modern welder protection mask, which is less comfortable, but also effective and safe to use as the dark slide glasses. During this time the Zambian president attended the observing crowd by the way.

three and a half minutes --- the solar photosphere isn't visible during the day

Only seconds remain until totality. The illumination of the landscape is now really ghostly, still sunshine on, it has now a very unsound shade: very faint and extremely pale. It has become considerably colder, due to the strongly reduced insolation. I can't bear the protection device any longer and stowe it away, now watching the sky in vicinity of sun and moon, which are nearly totally aligned meanwhile. The eyes still in daylight condition, I recognize another effect (see below too!): in this moment the sunlight begins to flicker, caused by the ragged rim of the moon, which covers not equally fast the remaining parts of the solar crescent.

Totality. Strong reactions by many of us emerge and some birds flying low in the now half-dark sky go crazy. I need some seconds of these about 200 to pick up the strange environment: a "wrong" dawn around us shows up, in the total eclipse midth in every direction. The majestic solar corona dominates now the sky, surrounding the black hole like moons disk. It's still rather symmetrical (now shortly after the last solar maximum) with a number of major "feathers" and now my binocular glasses pay off: clearly visible the extent corona and one major as well as some minor protuberances in the usual red enrich the impression. After resorting to the naked-eye view (for me still with correction glasses, but that's a problem with my eyes only) the fairly bright planet Jupiter, just a few degrees away from the eclipsed sun, is the most obvious "stellar" object in the sky. Much more distant its sister planet Saturn can be seen; but the sky is still sufficient illuminated by the relatively bright near-maximum solar cycle corona, to block out most stars but two: Sirius and Canopus, the two brightest true stars in the Earths sky I can discern, nothing more, but hey: it's great though! --- For sure there were some more stars to be seen, but like a sky in the bright dawn time it's too broad for easy finding of another, not so bright celestial objects. Maybe some aeresol in the air (caused by burning wood especially in the northern parts of Zambia) added to the skys brightness and made it more difficult to see stars?

During we are all "sucking in" this strange, but phantastic view, the speaker of the observation site begins to praise god. I can't deny his posture, either if one senses the greatness of such a natural phenomenon or has a religious experience: the emotional reaction to such a masterpiece of esthetics is strong. A mixture of silence and occasional outbursts of admiration takes place.

Now my "safety" alarm rings some 50 seconds before the end of the total eclipse (the third, terminating contact): time to stowe away any unprotected equipment and to prepare for the emerging photosphere, left behind by the moons disk. Knowing, that a sub-second view into the first tiny solar photospheres part can't damage the eyes despite slight adaptation to the low-illuminated state of the landscape, as it's often claimed, I wait now eagerly for the "diamond": it appears and I turn immediately the eyes away, limiting the amount of time of exposure to a harmless one. The first few rays of sunshine seem incredible bright after watching only the comparatively feeble corona and now the flickering of the reappeared sunshine starts again. This time I see too the accompanying effect: the "flying shadows" run like dark wave fronts parallel (mainly) above the field, clearly visible for the now still more to darkness adapted eyes. It is visible for many seconds, maybe a minute, to my surprise, and much more prominent than expected --- the underground isn't perfectly plain!

the end of totality and of the solar eclipse

Only the hardcore observers, documenting the complete sequence of the eclipse from the very first to the very last (fourth) contact stay tuned, watch the end of that outstanding event in every equal time intervals. We others either loose attention or remember that few (in it's most impressive stages) about four minutes, when we saw a landscape in a state like we did never before. The Zambian president leaves the site of that major event, for sure impressed too. Essentially the same stages occur as before the total eclipse now between the third and the fourth contact: weird shadows, faint, pale sunlight and so on. The mentioned birds, still in craze, flying low and crying and sometimes tumbling in the sky, not calmed down until sunset. Easy to explain: neither individual animals nor a species can adapt by any means to the rare event of a total solar eclipse, so it remains to the species-type of behaviour, how they react under these exceptional conditions.

The temperature decrease was surprisingly moderate, despite the sky was without any clouds (safe for some cirrus type ones rather low above the horizon). Because it took several hours from the first to the fourth contact, the sun is now considerable lower in the sky, preparing for its setting like on any other day.

a résumé

This was indeed one of the most impressive experiences of my life at all; and so everybody thinks, who has ever seen a total solar eclipse in its full glory. Nothing can match the visual observation of a total solar eclipse, no picture (series), no video, no other technical measure, be aware! (this has to do with the way our eyes and our brain work) The long, expensive (and atmosphere harming, I admit) voyage to Africa was to me worth every Euro- or US-$, I can assure you. Now, seen all of such an eclipse, I'm happy and satisfied with it, so I can live now without hunting it again --- sorry people, but at least for a decade or more this was my last one. Several fellow observers will return to the next or some of the next total solar eclipses I know, and everybody, who never saw one yet, and has no chance to see it in the vicinity where he or she lives, should attend one of these next. It is really an outstanding experience, can't be compared to anything else nature shows us on our planet. I will remember it vividly, until my body unites with the material of our planet, that's for sure.


background to the voyage and Zambia

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