Travel to the ends of the Earth next year to experience a special — but risky — total solar eclipse in Antarctica.
In exactly 500 days there will be a real collector’s solar eclipse. On Saturday, 4 December, 2021, at 7:33 a.m. UT — just after a brief night passes — part of Antarctica will be thrown under the Moon’s shadow.
Luckily, it all happens on an unusually accessible part of the seventh continent that's easily reachable by both cruise ship and plane from Argentina. The path of totality begins in the Weddell Sea — part of the Southern Ocean — and curves into the pack ice before sweeping across mainland Antarctica.
Totality takes a similar path across the White Continent every 18 years, 11 days, and eight hours. Even so, only one organised eclipse-chasing expedition has experienced totality in Antarctica. The cycle occurs because it takes that long for the Sun, Moon and Earth to come full circle, lining up with each other to cause another solar eclipse. These cycles — called saros (repetitions) — produce near-identical paths of eclipse, but their exact locations depends on Earth’s rotation. Each saros series starts by producing a partial solar eclipse for a period of time; Saros 152 has only been producing total solar eclipses on its last three repetitions, but will continue to do so until the year 2490.
There is only one active saros in the south polar region. The next few eclipses in Saros 152 change in longitude, but their latitude stays almost the same, explains Babak Tafreshi, an astrophotographer and founder of The World at Night. In 2021 Tafreshi will be lecturing on one of Quark Expeditions' eclipse voyages. Fred Espenak (aka, 'Mr Eclipse') will lecture on a second cruise.
“Saros 152 started producing total solar eclipses in 1967, but there was nobody in the path to witness that one, or the next one in 1985,” Tafreshi adds. The series' most recent total solar eclipse was on November 23, 2003 in a remote part of Antarctica. The next one after 2021 will be on December 15, 2039.
On December 4, 2021, observers will see the eclipsed Sun close to the horizon, no matter where they’re stationed. That will make it a special sight if there’s clear weather. “With the eclipse happening close to the horizon you can frame it better with Antarctica’s attractions to create a unique image,” says Tafreshi. He recommends using 50-mm to 100mm telephoto lenses as well as new technology like 360º cameras.
Experience the 2021 Total Solar Eclipse
Although relatively few people may live near totality in 2021, travelers may experience this eclipse from land, sea, or air. Here’s what you need to know:
The most expensive way to see it is from the stark polar landscapes of the Union Glacier Camp at 79.8°S 82.9°W. This location will experience 48 seconds of totality, with the eclipse visible 14° above the southeastern horizon. Only TravelQuest is organizing such a trip, and it’ll cost $39,800 per person.
A far easier and more affordable way of experiencing totality in 2021 will be by sea. Many of the 25 or so cruise ships currently scheduling eclipse trips will gather on the leeward side of the South Orkney islands. Some of them may also allow passengers to watch from Coronation Island or Laurie Island. From that general position — around 60°S 45°W — the eclipse will take place just 8° above the southeastern horizon, with totality lasting about 40 to 68 seconds, depending on the exact position.
“It’s going to be a truly inspiring event. The plan is to be out amongst the ice floe so we’ll be able to see totality very low on the horizon above the floating icebergs,” says Tyler Nordgren, a space artist and astronomy educator who will be lecturing for Betchart Expeditions on the M/V Janssonius. “That’s right up there with one of the best views I think anyone could possibly have.”
Sky & Telescope is planning its own trip on Hurtigruten’s state-of-the-art ms Roald Amundsen, for an 18-day adventure that includes landings at several sites in the South Shetland islands and on the Antarctic Peninsula itself.
But the weather prospects at sea will probably be challenging. “Trying to get the ship into a hole in the clouds will be a heart-stopping experience,” Nordgren adds.
Experiencing the 2021 total solar eclipse from the air
Since the weather prospects for a clear totality in Antarctica are relatively poor, a couple of flights are planned to get committed totality-chasers above any clouds.
“Most eclipse chasers have rarely, if at all, gone to the sunrise or sunset points to see a total solar eclipse, simply because on the ground, the chance of seeing the Sun just above the astronomical horizon is very small,” says Glenn Schneider (Steward Observatory and University of Arizona), who has developed the flight plans for a couple of flights taking off from Punta Arenas in southern Chile.
TEI Tours & Travel is offering a no-frills flight, whereas Sky & Telescope has partnered with Royal Adventures to provide a full sightseeing package in combination with an eclipse flight. Both will depart from Punta Arenas, Chile, and intercept the path of totality east of Tierra del Fuego, where passengers will see an eclipsed Sun just moments after sunrise. Totality will last for 1 minute 45 seconds.
For committed eclipse-chasers the temptation of being above the clouds can be overwhelming, but there are other attractions. “You’re almost guaranteed to see the eclipse, but there are so many pluses to seeing the eclipse from altitude,” says Kelly Beatty, Senior Editor at Sky & Telescope. “The sky is darker and the contrast of the corona against the sky is stunning. But also, because you’re looking down at the ground you can see the Moon's shadow coming across the surface of the Earth. It's not just some vague impression like you see on the ground, you literally see a dark spot approaching you and then overtaking the plane. It's stunning!”
This is a risky eclipse for those only interested in seeing a clear totality, but it’s arguably one with the biggest potential prize. “It could be the most incredible total solar eclipse anyone has ever seen, but on the other hand, maybe not,” says Nordgren. “Though even just having the entire world suddenly go dark around us amongst the icebergs is going to be an amazing experience.”