Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)
Solar Total Eclipse, 11 August 1999
For British people born in the mid to late 20th Century, the eclipse of 11 August 1999, for which the path of totality crossed the southern coast of the UK, was a much anticipated event. Preparations to observe the eclipse began early, as the following article in OASI's September 1998 Newsletter shows. Several members of OASI attempted to observe the 1999 eclipse and described their experiences as follows.
I travelled to Sivas in Turkey with my wife's brother. I took five cameras, a whole pile of ironmongery to support them, and my Psion Organiser-based controller and a relay box to operate them all automatically. I have described the control system previously . Before leaving on the trip I rehearsed as far as possible the assembly technique for the equipment, labelled things, made test exposures and wrote out a "running order" of what to do when. My intention was to let the automated system take all the photos during the eclipse leaving me free to watch the spectacle without a viewfinder!
My observing site at Sivas was located at 39° 48.692' N, 37° 12.598' E at an altitude of about 1370 metres (GPS). The site had marvellously clear skies, with just a few clouds low down on the horizon, in fact, the first clouds we had seen since arrival in Turkey. Once on site, I calculated estimates of 2nd and 3rd contact times as 11:32:11.5 UT and 11:33:25.0 UT respectively. I then added a -2 second limb correction to gave an estimate of totality of 135.5 seconds duration. I entered these times into the Psion to enable it to control the cameras.
I had varying degrees of success with the five cameras:
So, of the five cameras: two were 100% successful, one was 50% successful, one achieved 100% successful imaging of the wrong thing, and one did not record anything useful. I was most disappointed not to get images from the ETX. There were one or two other minor hiccups which need to be rectified, and I need to make the set-up even more idiot proof for next time: June 2001 in Zimbabwe.
In the early hours of the Tuesday morning after the eclipse, while asleep in a hotel in Canakkale, I dreamt that the room shook. Arriving downstairs for breakfast I discovered that I hadn't been dreaming at all. We were about 160 miles from Izmit. Once we realised how serious the earthquake had been we phoned home to let everybody know that we were OK. We then journeyed via the European side of the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul, which is about 50 miles from Izmit. We saw no signs of damage, just people camping out on the roadside. In central Istanbul, everything was reasonably normal, except that many tourist venues were shut. Early the following morning on the way to the airport, we saw thousands camping out.
Clear skies day before and day after the eclipse. Clearish sky at 0730 hrs on the day of the eclipse. Completely overcast by 1st contact, but did see about 50% partial phase for about two minutes between 1st and 2nd contact. Rain at various intervals during the eclipse. Temperature drop very noticeable as eclipse progressed. Light level steadily dropped until 2nd contact.
At 2nd contact there was a VERY noticeable drop in light levels, over a period of about 1.5 seconds, from a value akin to late afternoon to value akin to mid-evening. All eight people at my location (a remote farmhouse on the cliff top) "exclaimed" (mostly expletives!) at the suddenness of the light drop. Distant houses had lights on as did a couple of yachts out to sea. We didn't notice any unusual animal behaviour. The top of a nearby hill was widely illuminated by the hundreds of camera flashes from the crowds that had ascended to its summit, and a steady drumming came from the druids assembled just behind the same hill!
Third contact came very suddenly, with an instant return of daylight (not the inverse of the more gradual dimming at 2nd contact). I guess our eyes had become partially dark adapted.
No further view of the eclipse: the remainder of the egress phase all took place above the clouds!
I was staying just west of Bayeux on the Normandy coast in France for the week of the eclipse, on a family holiday. On the morning of 11 August we awoke to thick cloud. On the basis of a weather report on BBC Radio 5 indicating cloud covering Cornwall from the west and a local paper with a similar prediction for the Cherbourg peninsula, we drove about 100 miles east then north to get well into the zone of totality between Le Havre and Dieppe. In the queue of longer than one hour to get over the Pont de Normandie near Le Havre we could see some sunshine to the west over Le Havre, but with a good two hours to go we didn't fancy getting stuck in that very built up area, and the clouds were moving slowly so it was hard to tell where was best to go. We headed north towards Fecamp (on the eclipse centre-line, and on the coast), and came across a lovely clear patch where we stopped in a field to view the eclipse beginning. However, with about 40 minutes to totality it looked as though this hole in the clouds would close, so we headed for another clear patch to the west.
After a mad cross-country chase we hit a police road-block, at a point just on the edge of the cloud. However, the man on the barrier was more interested in the eclipse than in us, and allowed us through. We travelled for about a mile to another barrier where we were told to park. Not yet being clear of the cloud, I drove on another few hundred yards, but by then totality had just begun, and we were on the edge of a small coastal town, with people in the road, so I had to stop. We all piled out and saw totality appearing and disappearing as patches of cloud moved across. Towards 3rd contact, there were some very good clear patches, and we saw the corona very clearly, and a fantastic "diamond ring" effect at the end. The "diamond ring" was the best part - an impossibly bright and beautiful star of light appeared before we had to look away. In all the mad panic I still managed to set up the camera and tripod and take a few shots. They don't show the corona, but do show the chromosphere and an impression of the diamond ring effect at the end.
After 3rd contact, we travelled another half a mile to the beach, where there must have been a completely clear view. So, I was disappointed not to have journeyed the last little extra distance to get a better view but, given the cloud cover, and having heard the experiences of many others, count myself lucky to have seen as much as I did! I can sympathise with the bitter disappointment of those who were stuck in the wrong place and saw nothing of the eclipse.
I went with a careful plan of what exposures to take but, in the event, the mad rush to get clear of the cloud meant I just had to take a few quick shots as best I could. The three shots below were taken with an old Pentax SLR camera, tripod mounted, using a 135 mm lens with 2x teleconverter. They cover the period from just before 3rd contact until just after it. In taking the photos, I learnt how difficult it is to point even a modest focal length lens in the right direction quickly without risking your eyesight!
I knew that we were taking a chance with the English weather but I wasn't aware that August is monsoon season in Cornwall! We experienced hot sunny days on Tuesday and Thursday, 10 and 12 August. On 11 August itself, we saw absolutely no breaks in the cloud and during totality we stood outside getting soaking wet. Totality was unusually dark (much darker than the total solar eclipse of 26 February 1998 which we witnessed under clear skies from the Caribbean island of Curaca), and the landscape for miles into the distance was dotted with thousands of "fireflies" which, after a moment, we realised were camera flashes.
A group of people in the house adjacent to the one in which we were staying had decided to hit the road to look for clear skies. They got lost and stopped to establish where they were only to find, by sheer good luck, that they were under a clear patch of sky at exactly the right time! They found that the cameras they planned to use (automatic SLRs) wouldn't work during totality. However, one of the kids in the group had a Wallace and Grommet "instamatic" which did work: they've promised to send me the results if they come out. Across Devon and Cornwall some other people also enjoyed breaks in the cloud just at the right time (e.g. Goonhilly Satellite Earth station).
It rained up until about 30 minutes before totality. The rain then stopped but we had thick dark clouds for the next hour. I didn't think it got very dark. There was a noticeable darkening at totality but we had already had a very dark cloud base with a bright southerly horizon. The light from that bright horizon coupled with the ability of the human eye to adapt muted the effect. I did manage to see the partially eclipsed Sun for a couple of minutes about half an hour after totality. However, the view was through cloud that was so thick that I didn't need a solar filter!
In Capel St Mary most of the eclipse was seen through very thin cloud with occasional patches of clear sky. I found the best way of viewing was projection through a small refractor.
There was a small but noticeable light loss which gave a rather eerie effect to the landscape, having a slight darkening with the Sun still high in the sky. There was a distinct drop in temperature, more so than when cloud cover increased later in the day. Birds and insects took no notice at all and continued flying around. The crescent Sun filtering through leaves on trees gave an interesting effect of many crescent Suns projected onto the ground.
I've been looking forward to the eclipse of 11 August 1999 ever since becoming interested in astronomy over 30 years ago. I therefore began planning my arrangements for observing the event well in advance. Total eclipses visible from the UK are not common: the last occurred in 1927, and the next will not be until 2090. I wanted to observe the 11 August eclipse from the UK, even though foreign parts might offer a better chance of clear weather. After considering the various options, my wife and I decided to join the Explorers Tours charter train from Paddington which would take us to Penzance, very close to the centre line of totality, in good time to view the eclipse.
Explorers' early publicity advertised a convenient timetable with a return departure from Penzance in the early afternoon, enabling us to return home late on the evening of 11 August. Unfortunately, shortly before departure, Explorers changed the timetable so that the return train did not get back to Paddington until 1.00am, necessitating an overnight stay in a hotel in London before reaching home.
We began our journey on the 19:30 from Ipswich to Liverpool Street, then crossed London to Paddington where we indulged in a prolonged game of "spot the astronomer waiting for the eclipse train" - rucksack and tripod were the usual give-aways! After what seemed like an interminable wait at Paddington, the indicator board finally announced the departure of the Explorers train. We made our way to the departure gate but were completely unprepared for the sight that awaited... a train comprising an ancient diesel locomotive hitched to some 15 ancient carriages. We speculated as to whether the carriages had last seen service during the 1927 eclipse or during filming of Murder on the Orient Express!
Although the train was fully booked it appeared to be little more than half-full. The forecasts of bad weather in Cornwall and the late change to the return departure time may have discouraged many travellers. we arrived in Penzance at 05.15am, and I have never seen passengers so reluctant to disembark! The sky at this time suffered from about 60% cloud cover but there were still many large clear patches. However, our enthusiasm was tempered by the knowledge that the forecast was for increasing cloud cover by late morning. We ventured into Penzance town, but were not impressed: all toilets were locked shut and few eating places were open. It was clear that the town had made no effort to welcome its eclipse visitors. After walking the streets for some time, we stumbled upon the Queen's Hotel, on Western Promenade Road, which saved the day. The Queen's served an excellent breakfast and offered a sun lounge with a spectacular view due south over the promenade directly towards the position of the Sun during totality. We took up temporary residence in the sun lounge in the Queen's, watching over the promenade as spectators assembled and the cloud cover steadily increased. By the time of first contact, at 09.57am, there was 100% cloud cover and steady rain. The rain persisted until approximately 10.45am. By about 11.00am the rain had stopped but the sky remained very overcast and gloomy. By this time a substantial crowd had assembled some four or five deep along the whole length of the promenade. We left the Queen's to experience totality in the great outdoors.
The heavy cloud cover seemed to account for the dark conditions as we went outside. Some three minutes before totality (2nd contact was at 11.11am), the sky began to darken still further. Darkening proceeded rapidly until, at the start of totality, light levels were like night-time. Streetlights came on, the Penzance seagulls disappeared to roost, a few fireworks were let off over St Michael's Mount and thousands of camera flashes popped. There was no discernible change in wind speed or temperature at the time of totality - but this would have been difficult to detect on such a foul day. Following the end of totality (3rd contact was at 11.13am) the sky brightened very rapidly and there was some clapping and cheering from the crowd. By about 11.20am the crowd decided that the show was over and began to disperse. The weather did not improve; however, by late morning we caught a brief glimpse of the eclipsed sun, showing approximately 50% phase, through a thinning in the clouds.
We spent the remainder of the day in Penzance. This proved to be something of an ordeal, as the town still had made no effort to welcome the eclipse-tourists. Eventually, we set off on the return train to London, checked into our hotel for the night at 1.30am and finally returned home at 2.00pm on Thursday afternoon. Considering the experience as a whole, the abysmal weather which prevented observations, the lack of tourist facilities and the ancient rolling stock, it proved to be a very British eclipse and a disappointing experience for one so long awaited!
I did not finalise my plans for observing the eclipse until the beginning of 1999. Eventually, I decided to observe from Paignton in Devon, ideally from a vantage point overlooking Torbay. My next problem was one of logistics: how to transport all the equipment I might need together with everything else necessary for a week-long stay? My equipment included two tripods, a Maksutov telescope, a solar projection screen, two cameras (SLR and compact), a camcorder and miscellaneous solar filters. I managed to fit it all into one backpack and one suitcase with the two tripod cases strapped to the top. To overcome any potential rush I travelled by train to Paignton on the Saturday preceding the eclipse. Once at Paignton, I found an observing site which appeared suitable: it was a small park on top of a cliff, shielded from any annoying street lights, with a clear view to the south-east over Torbay and into the English channel beyond.
The morning of the eclipse started well with bright sunshine. Cloud cover was only about 50% at 6.30am. However as the morning progressed the cloud became more extensive until it was virtually 100% cover around 8.30am. I set out for my chosen observing site a little after 9.00am. The park had already started filling up. Many people had camcorders or cameras with long focal length lenses mounted on tripods, while others were just settling down for a picnic on the grass. I assembled my equipment: telescope on one tripod and camcorder on the other, and settled back to wait. As far as I could see I was the only person with solar projection equipment. The person next to me had a radio tuned to the local Torquay station, with reports coming from all around the bay.
At 1st contact, I could see nothing of the Sun, but some time later the cloud thinned enough to glimpse it. There was insufficient time to focus the projection equipment and too much cloud to find the Sun with the mylar filter on the camcorder. I removed the mylar filter and started searching for the Sun through the cloud. I managed to record the partial phase successfully on several occasions prior to 2nd contact. Leading up to totality, a blue ITN helicopter had been flying around the whole of Torbay. Was any member of OASI watching the ITV eclipse coverage? I wondered...
As 2nd contact approached the temperature dropped very noticeably. By this time it was obvious that the clouds would not allow observation of totality. I changed tack and began to video the surrounding area and the passing shadow. The light during totality seemed quite odd. Out to sea near the horizon there was a bank of thunder clouds, billowing to a very high altitude. The Sun had been illuminating these for all the time I had been on site. The cloud bank acted as a good marker to observe the shadow moving away from the land and out to sea. I was also able to see well the northern limit of totality. Towards the east the clouds were noticeably illuminated by the partial eclipse of the Sun.
After the eclipse shadow had passed by, spontaneous applause broke out from the crowd all around, after which the vast majority started to disperse. I stayed for about another half-hour hoping to resume recording the partial phase again. I saw it once, for about two minutes. By this time the cloud seemed thicker than ever so I decided to call it a day.
Two additional snippets of information that I gleaned later in the week:
Our chosen observation site was at Truro School, which the BAA had booked for the event. In excess of 600 BAA members and their families attended, staying variously in makeshift bedrooms, tents and caravans. The BAA had chosen the school for its security and privacy and its excellent position on high ground overlooking the city with a wide unobstructed view towards the position of the eclipsed Sun over open farmland. Although about 15 miles north of the centre line, the school still offered a duration of totality of 1:57.
Wednesday morning, 11 August 1999 - the great day at last - and we were woken by the sounds of frenetic activity from other members on site, busily preparing their equipment. The sky was overcast but with some encouraging gaps in the clouds. The forecast announced a frontal system would be moving over our area "around lunchtime"... It appears that lunch is taken somewhat early in the southwest and, by the time we were ready to walk up to the observing area at 10.40am, light drizzle was already falling and the sky was leaden. Undeterred, we arrived on the observation field which was full with astronomers sporting a galaxy of observing aids. We set up in a convenient space which allowed for one double buggy, two adults and a lot of ancillary equipment. All those talks on basic preparation began to ring true: I'd forgotten the blasted cable releases for the cameras and had to scurry back to the van to find them. Panic over, it only took a few minutes and we were all set up by 11.00am. Sadly, the sky wasn't... All eyes were skyward and all hopes were on a knife edge. The light level was certainly diminishing and it was getting milder. A huge cheer went up at 11.05am - there was the almost fully eclipsed Sun - and there was yet another dark cloud closing over it to stifle that cheer!
The Moon's shadow approached from the west and the temperature dropped dramatically - along with what was left of the light. 11.12am and totality was very obviously upon us. It was the most silent, eerie and goosebumpy feeling we'd ever experienced. Still no sign of the eclipsed Sun, but I snapped photos of all and everything. All that we had been told of our precious 1:57 of totality being over in an instant was abundantly true and the shadow wasted no time passing over us.
Still no sign of the Sun, although we noticed one enterprising wag holding up a dark disk and people were photographing him! An anonymous voice pointed out that there were no flares visible on his disk. Our enterprising wag duly obliged and lit a cigarette lighter behind the disk to hold the flame up to its edge. More camera shutters clicked! In the far distance we could see flashguns going off and also some fireworks. One certainly wouldn't have dared to turn up with a flash on the BAA site! As the light returned and we watched the shadow speed off southeast, champagne bottles began to pop and muted celebrations followed. Most were toasting the next eclipse (2001 in southern Africa) and a feeling of general resignation was replaced by elation. At 11.20am another huge but ironic cheer went up as a crescent Sun peeped through the clouds for a minute or so.
We had all witnessed something very special. By evening that fickle weather of ours had cleared, allowing us all to enjoy a huge BBQ, washed down with plenty of the local brew and with a jazz trio for background. Poignantly, many members were pointing their cameras westward over Truro Cathedral's famous triple spires to snap the sunset - rubbing "salt into the wound". Unbelievably, the following morning dawned sunny and clear, with not a cloud in the sky all day!
I was in Hastings on the south coast which was quite close to totality. It got quite dark especially when a large cloud obscured things near to maximum eclipse. Most frustrating!
Birds became quiet apart from the seagulls which started making quite a noise and several dogs started barking. It also became quite cool in the following 30 minutes or so.
See Fred Espenak's eclipse web site eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse.html.