As the Northern Hemisphere heads toward its vernal equinox, parts of the globe will be treated to a total solar eclipse within just a few hours of the official beginning of spring. Before we get to the details of where and when, let’s do a crash course on solar eclipses.
There are three types of solar eclipses: partial, annular, and total. As the name implies, a partial solar eclipse is when the Moon only blocks out a portion of the Sun’s surface. It will appear to the viewer that the sun has a “bite” taken out of it.
Then there’s the annular solar eclipse. This happens when the Moon completely moves over the Sun’s surface but doesn’t block out the sunshine entirely. This happens because even though the Sun and Moon appear almost the same size in the sky, there are slight fluctuations. This is due to the eccentric orbits of the Moon around the Earth, and the Earth around the Sun. During an annular eclipse the Moon appears slightly smaller than the Sun so it allows a ring of sunshine to still shine through, producing a “ring of fire”, or donut-shaped sun.
A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon completely covers the surface of the Sun, turning day into night and allowing only the solar corona and prominences to be seen. This is the type that will occur this month over portions of the northern Atlantic Ocean.
Bonus factoid: A total eclipse occurring on the same day as the vernal equinox is a rare event. The last time that happened was in 1662. Nineteen years later there was a “hybrid” solar eclipse on May 20, 1681, which is an unusual combination of both an annular and total eclipse that occurs along the eclipse path. Just like centuries ago, the Earth will have another vernal eclipse in 19 years, arriving on March 20, 2034.
Ok, enough of the astronomy lecture… now for the details.
The partial portion of this eclipse will have a wide audience – viewable to more than 1 billion people – but it won’t be visible to anyone in the U.S., much of Canada, and all of Central and South America. That`s because the eclipse will happen while it’s still dark on this side of the world.
Those who will be able to see it are residents of Europe, parts of Asia, and northwestern Africa, when the sun will go into its partial eclipse in the early morning and move across both western and eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East, and end in northern Russia by sunset.
As for the total eclipse, much to the disappointment of umbraphiles, it will have a much smaller audience – around 50,000 people. That’s because the total darkness portion of this eclipse will generally make an arc across the northern Atlantic Ocean, missing Iceland to the east, and ending around the North Pole… locations not exactly teeming with people. Still, residents in the Faroe Islands as well as Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, will get to see a total solar eclipse lasting over 2 minutes Friday morning, weather permitting.
Use caution while viewing an eclipse no matter where in the world you are. Looking directly at the Sun, even for a moment, can cause permanent eye damage and blindness. The safest way to view one is through a pinhole projector or through an eclipse filter. You can find eclipse filters and viewing glasses on-line and in some specialty stores, but make sure you do your research and find a reputable and reliable supplier. You should never use sunglasses, smoked glass, or x-ray film to view an eclipse.
Finally, if local weather conditions don’t allow astronomy fans to see this eclipse, the next total solar eclipse visible in Europe will be in August 2026. As for the U.S., even though we’ll miss this one, the U.S. will see our next chance in August 2017, when the path of a total solar eclipse bisects the Lower 48 from Salem, Ore., to Charleston, S.C.