diamond geezer

 Monday, August 21, 2017

One cold February morning way back in 1971, just before playtime as I remember, the headmistress at my infant school came bustling into our classroom. She asked us all to go outside, to stand in the middle of the playground and to look carefully upwards. The sky was blue apart from one large fluffy cloud, obscuring the sun but just transparent enough to allow sight of a horned black crescent behind, its upper half eaten away by some unseen cosmic force. This was the first eclipse of the sun that I'd ever seen, and it made quite an impression (though thankfully not by burning out my retina). Since then I've always gone out of my way to make a special effort to view any solar eclipse if I possibly can - although the number I've managed to see has only just crept into double figures, that's how rare these things are.

While I was still at primary school I discovered in a reference book that a total eclipse of the sun was due to cross the UK in 1999. That date seemed impossibly far off at the time - I'd be, ooh, absolutely ancient - but it was most definitely a date to look forward to. Immediately I knew I wanted to be in Cornwall on that August morning several decades hence, simply to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity. As the end of the century approached I got time off work, booked a vastly overpriced hotel room and lumbered myself with a less than enthusiastic (Cornish) travelling companion. We braved the traffic jams and the increasingly pessimistic weather forecast to head southwest, enduring it all just to be in the path of the moon's shadow during that unique two minute slot.

It was sunny in Cornwall at ten past eleven on every other morning that week, but on Wednesday 11th August the cloud rolled in and obscured the sky throughout the entire three hour spectacle. At the crucial climactic moment a huge dark shadow whooshed in from the Atlantic and blackened the land like some eerie premature twilight, but the true spectacle was sweeping across the cloudtops a few hundred feet above our heads. So near, and yet so far. I was crushed. The event I'd been dreaming of for so long had proved the most enormous disappointment, and I suffered "Was that it? You brought me all the way down here for that?" for the rest of the week. London friends crowed on our return that they'd seen everything perfectly and unobscured, except they'd only seen 97% and it was the uniqueness of totality I'd felt compelled to experience.

In amongst all the eclipse paraphernalia I acquired at the time was a book listing every future solar eclipse up to 2020. There seemed to be plenty, but once the partial and annular eclipses were stripped out only 13 total eclipses remained. What's more most of these were in awkward locations like Antarctica or across the open ocean, so I wasn't going to get to see any of those. But one stood out, a total eclipse on 21st August 2017, whose path would cross the entire width of the United States of America and thus be easily accessible. Having failed in 1999, I pencilled in USA 2017 as my next attainable totality.

Last time I was standing in a queue with an eclipse chaser I made sure to ask where the best weather prospects would be found along its track. The Northwest, she said, specifically Oregon, confirming in my mind which side of the country would be optimal. Nobody wants to travel all that way and then see nothing, as I'd discovered in 1999. Meanwhile Idaho and Wyoming seemed too remote for a Brit with no transport, Kansas City was too peripheral to the line of totality, and Nashville had a reputation for summer cloud. There was a time in the last ten years when I had a friend living in Charleston, South Carolina, but they moved swiftly on and that option disappeared. The Great American Eclipse remained a possibility rather than a planned reality.

"We should definitely go," I said to BestMate, and more than once over the entire time I've known him. His work often takes him to the west coast of America, he even has a visa, so that would help. Except, it turned out as 2017 drew closer, his visa expired at exactly the wrong time for a midsummer visit, so going together was suddenly off the table. Never mind, I had one last trick up my sleeve, I lost my job. My time was now my own, and nobody was going to tell me I couldn't have that week off because there was some deadline or a meeting they thought important. If I wanted to go and watch the moon glide precisely in front of the Sun, I could.

But I haven't gone to America. I could have, and I wanted to, but I never got round to planning it. More to the point, just when I was actually thinking about planning it, America changed. From being a sort-of welcoming country under the previous administration, the inauguration of Donald Trump set in train a series of pronouncements on borders, security and immigration control which deterred me from going. Travelling into an American airport is never fun, and if additional procedures were going to make things worse, I didn't want to go. It's probably only a perception issue - a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing - but Trump changed my mind and put me off visiting his country. Totally.

Instead I shall have to watch today's total eclipse virtually from across the pond, from 18:16 BST in Oregon to 19:48 BST in South Carolina. It'll be nowhere near the same as actually being there - no substitute ever comes close to experiencing totality with your own eyes - but I've let this prime opportunity slip away. And then, to rub salt in my wounds, the partial eclipse will come whizzing across the Atlantic and reach the UK just before sunset. The first black nibble over London comes at 19:40, with maximum coverage at 20:04, just before sunset at 20:11. But that means the sun'll be really low in the sky, plus only 4% of the solar disc will be covered which is pathetically small as eclipses go, so this one's really not worth bothering to look at at all.

Three other not very good partial eclipses will be seen from London over the next eight years, before the next cracker in the summer of 2026. Over 90% of the sun will be covered on 12th August 2026, which is as good as it gets until 2081, if you're planning on still being around then. But there are two nearby countries where the 2026 eclipse will be total, namely Iceland and Spain, so maybe I should start making plans to be there instead. That once-in-a-lifetime spectacle deserves to be seen one day, but not today... opportunity spurned, opportunity missed.

London's next ten partial solar eclipses
• Mon 21 August 2017 (20:04 BST) 4%
• Thu 10 June 2021 (11:13 BST) 20%
• Tue 25 October 2022 (10:59 BST) 15%
• Sat 29 March 2025 (11:03 GMT) 31%
Wed 12 August 2026 (19:13 BST) 91%
• Mon 2 August 2027 (10:00 BST) 42%
• Sat 1 June 2030 (06:21 BST) 48%
• 21 Aug 2036 (19:07 BST) 60%
• 16 Jan 2037 (09:06 GMT) 46%
• 3 Jan 2038 (14:34 GMT) 5%

The UK's next five total solar eclipses
3 September 2081 (Guernsey, Jersey)
23 September 2090 (South coast, Cornwall to Sussex)
3 June 2133 (Outer Hebrides, Dunnet Head, Shetland)
7 October 2135 (Central Scotland and Northumberland)
25 May 2142 (Jersey)

London's next total solar eclipse
14 June 2151 (the last was on 3 May 1715)


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