It’s recently come to my attention that a “ring of fire” will be over the United States next month, on Saturday October 14. “What?”, you might ask; “Is the world coming to an end?”. No, not that kind of fire: it’s going to be an “annular eclipse”, an astronomical phenomenon when the Moon moves in front of the Sun, as in a total solar eclipse, but the Moon is too far away to completely cover the Sun (boo!), meaning there’s a little ring of the solar surface left over. Just like a transit of Venus or whatever, only with the transiting object being much larger in apparent size.
Indeed, technically that’s what an “annular eclipse” is: a transit, rather than an actual eclipse. But whatever; although it doesn’t compare to the majesty of a real eclipse, the vast majority of the Sun’s illumination will be obscured, and the ring of fire should be pretty cool.
So, where exactly will this curious event take place? NASA has a helpful page on the topic, which seems rather obscure; asking around, basically nobody in my social circle has even heard of the thing!
Anyway, the annular eclipse will track over the United States starting on the Pacific Coast of Oregon, at Dunes City and Newport, and a bit later in fact passing right over the rather picturesque Crater Lake National Park. Eugene and Medford are also in the path of annularity. Past Oregon, it graces Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Winnemuca, and Elko, before tracking over much of southern Utah, including Canyonlands National Park. The Four Corners will also be in the path. In New Mexico, annularity tracks over Farmington, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Roswell, and Carlsbad; a surprising number of the state’s greatest hits as far as tourist destinations go! Texas is the state with the largest amount of the eclipse’s track, with annularity being visible over Midland, Odessa, San Angelo, San Antonio and Corpus Christi, exiting the United States at Padre Island.
From there it passes over much of Central and South America, as you can see in the NASA map below:
Notice the times: the eclipse hits the West Coast around 16:00 UT (i.e. GMT), which is not too long after sunrise. The latest time the eclipse takes place in the United States is 17:00 UT, when it passes over Corpus Christi and the northern reaches of Padre Island. In Oregon the eclipse starts at around 9 AM local time (Pacific Daylight Time), whereas in Texas it ends at 12 PM local time (Central Daylight Time).
If you’re interested in seeing this phenomenon, it might be worth a bit of a trip to go to the path of annularity, if you’re not lucky enough to already be in it where you live. The last time an annular eclipse came to the United States was on May 20, 2012 (when this post’s featured image was taken in eastern New Mexico; weirdly, the same area this one’s going to!), which was 11 years ago; worse yet, the next time an annular eclipse will be visible from anywhere in the United States will be June 21, 2039, and even that will be visible only from Alaska. The next one visible from anywhere in the contiguous states will be February 5, 2046!
So this sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time. Where will be the best place to view the eclipse? Climatologically the best bet would be in one of the desert regions, which have the lowest chance of cloud cover obscuring the sun (if the sun is obscured you can’t see anything, other than a vague sense of it getting darker through the cloud deck; boo!).
But even as far east as Corpus Christi the odds aren’t too bad; October on average sports 65 percent of possible sunshine. That compares to 77 percent in Roswell; better, but not drastically so (surprising, considering how much drier the place is). Even Winnemucca only gets up to 75 percent. So really at almost any point in the path the odds are in your favor; just make sure to check the weather forecast before you go, and, if you really want to see the thing, to be flexible and ready to change your plans to a different sunnier site if your first choice doesn’t look too good (for example, October is still hurricane season at Padre Island…).
Of course, even if you do strike out in this transit or eschew it in favor of…well, whatever you usually do on a Saturday in October…there’s a real total eclipse coming to the United States on April 8 of next year, with its track even heading over Texas again, and I’m sure that will be a much more spectacular sight.
Nevertheless, I’m sure an annular eclipse will be one of the cooler things you’ve ever seen, and checking hotel rates (at least in Corpus Christi), they’re normal; in stark contrast to a total eclipse, it seems few crowd into the path of an annular event. So if it interests you and you can free up that day for a little traveling, why not go see it? At least that’s the way I look at it. 🙂
This post’s featured image is a photograph of the May 20, 2012 annular eclipse in eastern New Mexico by Kevin Baird; CC-BY-SA 3.0.