For the 300 members of the Sky & Telescope/TravelQuest group touring in China, the weather gods delivered a miracle for the ages. “We had the privilege of a rare astronomical event — viewing a total solar eclipse in the rain!” says Eric Novotny of Fairfax Station, Virginia.
We experienced heavy rains from our base in the enormous coastal city of Shanghai the night before the eclipse. Weather prospects for Eclipse Day looked so foreboding that several members of our group split away and flew west on a domestic flight to the city of Wuhan. Canadian meteorologist Jay Anderson was traveling with our group, and based on his recommendation after analyzing weather-satellite data and computer models for the 22nd, we changed our itinerary. Instead of viewing the eclipse at our reserved coastal restaurant just south of Shanghai, we drove on several buses about 50 miles even further south. Jay had scouted out a rest stop on the south end of the magnificent Hangzhou Bay Bridge. At 22 miles in length, this recently finished bridge is the longest trans-oceanic bridges in the world.
After receiving 3:00 a.m. wake-up calls at our hotel and boarding our buses at 4:00, we arrived at the site around 6:30 and were greeted by completely overcast skies. But within an hour, the Sun started to occasionally poke through the clouds, giving us a ray of hope. Unfortunately, the clouds were thick enough to effectively hide the early stages of the eclipse.
As we approached second contact (the onset of totality) at 9:36 a.m. local time, a steady rain started falling from the sky, and dark, low-level clouds completely obscured the Sun. With the situation appearing hopeless, people started to break down their telescopes and cameras. Thinking that a spectacular eclipse experience was totally beyond the realm of possibility, I looked all around to take in my surroundings. I could tell that the sky was getting noticeably darker, but it was impossible to separate the effects of the eclipse from those of the clouds.
Just a minute or two before second contact, the Sun started to poke through again, and we could see a deep partial eclipse. The sky started darkening rapidly, and I could feel a surge of optimism and energy in our group. Then boom, we could see Baily’s beads and a diamond ring through a thin haze, and suddenly the sky was pitch black. Against all expectations from just a few minutes earlier, we were seeing a total solar eclipse!
During the first minute or so of totality, we could see a glowing haze around the eclipsed Sun: the inner corona. But low-lying clouds were moving rapidly across the sky, occasionally obscuring the view completely. The eclipsed Sun came in and out during the entire 5 minutes of totality. Our amazingly good fortune continued when the sky cleared moments before third contact, allowing us to see a repeat performance of the diamond ring and Baily’s beads.
After totality ended, the sky brightened extremely rapidly despite the fact that clouds completely covered the Sun. The Sun never returned. All in all, we saw virtually nothing of the partial phases — but enough of the main act to leave everyone satisfied.
For me, the clouds prevented this event from rising anywhere near the level of the March 29, 2006, eclipse that I viewed in the Libyan desert. The murky skies ensured there would be no streamers, no easily visible prominences, no shadow bands, no discernible effects on the horizon, and no obvious lunar shadow rushing across the landscape. Views of the totally eclipsed Sun were brief and intermittent. Conditions for photography were extremely poor.
Still, nobody left disappointed, and I share this perspective from fellow tour member Connie Rush of Owasso, Oklahoma: “After an emotional roller-coaster ride in the early morning, the power of positive thinking won. We saw it; it counts.”
“Emotionally, going from certain disappointment to sudden gratification made this the most intense eclipse experience of my life,” says Murray Larsen of Lewiston, Idaho.
“I put my camera, filters, and viewer away, thinking the first total solar eclipse of my life would be clouds and brief darkness,” adds Tricia McNew of Selah, Washington. “Then the Sun peeked out, the rain stopped, and I got to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event, a diamond ring and complete totality with new friends and family. I will never forget the people dancing and cheering on the Sun.”
As I reflect on the experience a few hours later from my Shanghai hotel room, I’m amazed we saw anything through the clouds. Yeah, it won’t be the greatest eclipse of my lifetime. But I have made wonderful new friends, experienced the incredible energy of a great nation on the rise, and saw enough beautiful eclipse effects to satiate my hunger for at least another year. Chinese tour guide Judy Zhu told us that Shanghai was completely clouded out, so I give Jay Anderson my deepest thanks for giving our group a slim chance to see this eclipse. That “slim chance” was all that we needed; Mother Nature did the rest.