Dec 12, 2011

Will the next eclipse cause a cheap fare blackout?

There is a total eclipse of the sun across a narrow strip of the Top End and Queensland on 14 November next year, and just mentioning this is probably going to cause a cheap fare bl

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

2008 total solar eclipse from Mongolia, credit  Miloslav Druckmuller (Brno University of Technology), Peter Aniol, Vojtech Rusin
2008 total solar eclipse Mongolia, credit Miloslav Druckmuller (Brno University of Technology), Peter Aniol, Vojtech Rusin

There is a total eclipse of the sun across a narrow strip of the Top End and Queensland on 14 November next year, and just mentioning this is probably going to cause a cheap fare blackout to Cairns and Darwin.

But if you thought the total lunar eclipse on Saturday night/early Sunday morning was spectacular in those parts of Australia to have clear skies, the reverse geometry, when the moon traces its shadow across the surface of the earth produces something very rare, and incredibly beautiful.

Solar eclipses aren’t continent wide events, at least not for the places it can be seen as total rather than partial.  So the next solar eclipse, here, is only tenuously related to aviation, although it is possible eclipse chaser flights, like those flown by Qantas and LAN Chile in 2003 to view an eclipse of the midnight sun over Antarctica, may be organised, and in the case of this eclipse, smaller light aircraft might be a way to beat the very high risk of tropical cloud buildups and storms at that time of year.

14/11/2012 solar eclipse track (Australian date), credit Jay Anderson

However seeing an eclipse from the air isn’t the wonderful experience you will gain from being on the ground in good viewing conditions, because eclipses are much more than just a gee whiz moment when the moon’s shadow sweeps across the land.

On 14 November, 2012, the sun will rise fully eclipsed by the lunar disk at Tor Rock in Arnhem Land,  and it will be a very early morning spectacle along the comparatively narrow swathe of Australia that will be traced by the moon’s shadow as it races off on a east south easterly track to cross the Gulf country and Port Douglas and Cairns.

Tor Rock, and the surrounding area, will probably be under siege by eclipse chasers, the spare-no-expense-solar-eclipse-aficionados who have been booking rooms, tent sites and travel arrangements for years in advance of this, as the pre dawn twilight awaits the rare conjunction of a rising sun and the fall, like a great massive dark bird, of the lunar shadow.


Arnhem land eclipse track 2012, credit Jay Anderson

All being clear, the celestial butterfly, as the ancient astronomers called it, will spread its ghostly wings around the black oval disk of the moon, as it covers the sun and reveals the tenuous luminescence of the solar corona.  But only if you get clear skies and are well within the northern and southern boundaries of  the predicted shadow track, which is calculated with great accuracy but can be slightly affected by atmospheric distortion.

The waterfront at Port Douglas and along the Cairns Esplanade will be swarming, although this is, as mentioned, not the best time of year for clear skies in northern Australia.  It will be a standing room only eclipse at the key vantage points.

In the Cairns-Port Douglas area, where the sun will have risen well clear of the horizon before totality occurs , the sun will be eclipsed for just over 60 seconds.  Out in the mid southern Pacific, where it occurs when the sun his high in the sky on 13 November because of the date line, costly chartered eclipse watching ocean going yachts or cruise liners will get over four minutes in the eerie deep twilight of a long total eclipse where the shadow track spreads out wide enough to reduce the leakage of light from beyond the zone of totality.

Eclipse track N Queensland, credit Jay Anderson

While there are very detail eclipse path tables posted by NASA, a non-technical user friendly set of highly detailed maps can be found here, at the site maintained by Canadian astronomer and eclipse chaser Jay Anderson.

This will be the third time solar eclipse totality has been observable in Australia since the 23 October 1976 event, which crossed Melbourne in broken cloudy skies which gave clear viewing in some suburbs, and was seen by this observer above a rocky cove near Bega, where it ambushed a nearby party of intoxicated weekend fishermen who were almost speechless when we saw them after it finished.  (When the darkness came, the sea birds screeched and wheeled and a weird wind whipped up the wave tops as the air fell cold.)

They obviously had no idea an eclipse was imminent until maybe the last few minutes in which everything starts to look ‘different’. This is because your eyes have adapted to the gradual diminution of daylight as the lunar disc covers more and more of the sun, but in the last few minutes something else happens. For perhaps the first time in your life you are seeing the world illuminated by just the outer limb of the sun, and the colours change to a flat parchment hue quite different in subtle ways from what you observe at sunset or sunrise when the sun angle is as low as it can be.  Your brain goes ‘whoa’, this isn’t normal.  And it can pick up on the fact that as the light begins to fade rapidly, the shadows aren’t getting longer. Double ‘whoa’.

Of course, our fishing friends might not have been into subtleties. The sky was going dark, the sea suddenly sprung up and roared, the birds screeched, the evening star appeared, and for more than three minutes it was cold and weird under a black disc surrounded by a halo.

And then the diamond ring effect blazed back, too fiercely to allow continue naked eye observation, as the sun twinkled through the side on valleys of the lunar limb, and, …whew, …. it’s gone, gimme another beer!

At the near sunset eclipse of 4 December 2002 at Lyndhurst,  north of Leigh Creek in South Australia, totality was incredibly brief, less than 20 seconds, during which the sky sunk through an amazing range of deep blue and violet hues, and the shadow of the moon like a black searchlight sprang up from the horizon.  In 1976, it had arrived like a broad storm front that over rode a bank of clouds, but at Lyndehurst, the attenuated lunar shadow was so narrow you could see it fan out directly overhead. The whole sun was diamond ringed for about a second or two, unlike the long lasting single diamond like point of the sun’s rim that hung off the black lunar disc at the start of a long eclipse in Port Moresby on 11 June 1983.

At Lyndhurst soon after the brief eclipse had passed a thin crescent sun touched the horizon,  turned into two golden tusks that gradually set while cradling the lunar disc.

There had been a rave eclipse party for the exceedingly well heeled at Lyndhurst that most of us who were there knew nothing about other than it was down a track in the general direction of a rough air strip, from which at least one plane had dropped a group of skydivers in time to catch the eclipse on the way down.

That night, on TV down the track at a roadhouse, there were images of a half naked Nubian drummer, pausing dramatically and with perfect timing amid the hypnotic beat to bow to the horizon as the shadow arrived, and the celestial butterfly appeared and the Teenybopper news vision panned across a dune covered with beautiful people with expensive tastes in lollies bursting into tears.  Awesome. Astronomy meets designer drugs!

It was said the performers and promoters apparently follow eclipses wherever practicable.

Will they turn up at Kakadu or Cairns? Who knows? Excluding a split second eclipse that wouldn’t be safe to directly observe which might just graze the coast near Exmouth on 20 April 2023 as it tracks by on its way to Indonesia, the next total solar eclipse in Australia after 2012 is on 22 July 2028, a  big one that will last over five minutes near Broome, then sweep across the red centre and over most of  the Sydney basin including the harbor before crossing the Tasman to a cosmic curtain lowering display at sunset near Dunedin.

In the lifetimes of many readers, there is also a 13 July 2037 total solar eclipse that just touches greater Brisbane,  but blankets the Gold Coast, and on 26 December 2038,  another will cross central South Australia and Victoria well north of Melbourne, but bringing an afternoon Boxing Day show to Swan Hill, Echuca, Shepparton and Bright, and my beloved Mount Feathertop.

But back to air travel. The way to beat any spike in fares might be to give the Top End and inland into the Gulf country the time they deserve. Go and see them, and a cloudy morning won’t matter. And if they part in time, perhaps you will be changed too.

Antoine Caron, Astronomers studying an eclipse, circa 1571


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