The Ring of Fire Came to West Texas!

Well, as of last Saturday, October 14, 2023, I’ve seen my first annular eclipse! Turned out there was some cloud cover in New Mexico, so rather than heading there I made my way to West Texas, Odessa to be precise, deep within the wide-open flat landscape of the Permian Basin, where a blue-dome sky greeted me that morning.

The moon started on its course, taking a bite out of the sun, but before too long it became apparent that the moon was too small to fully eclipse the sun, so the crescent sun extended further and further around the moon as the planet moved over its disk, eventually wrapping more than 180 degrees around the moon’s silhouette, creating a “horn” effect. The light outside became noticeably dimmer; the shadows were still as short as they were in the middle of the day, yet the level of illumination was eerily low, a unique ambience.

Then, the “horns” progressed further and further around the moon’s silhouette, until the moon’s entire disk was within the sun’s disk, closing the gap and giving me the awesome sight of the sun becoming a ring. Even at 90% obscuration it was still too bright to behold with the naked eye, but through eclipse glasses it was awe-inspiring. It was still bright enough to be daylight, but a daylight darker than anything that seemed to be of this earth.

The view of the “ring of fire” through my camera at 1x magnification. The sky appears dark due to the short exposure time necessary to resolve the sun’s and moon’s disks. In person the sky appeared blue still, but a very dim, washed-out, almost greyish blue. Very distinct from the sort of twilight you see around dawn or dusk, or even the 360-degree sunset effect you see in a total solar eclipse.

The sight overall was not as spectacular or as beautiful as a total solar eclipse, but if anything it was actually creepier and more eerie. The “ring of fire” effect in particular was cool, even if it is fundamentally a kind of partial eclipse, albeit a very special one. In an ordinary partial eclipse, you see crescent suns projected through pinholes in the leaves onto the ground; ho hum. In this one, however? In an annular eclipse, the images of the sun projected onto the ground form rings.

Let’s get real: when was the last time you’ve seen something like that in person? That’s as close as you’ll find on Earth to an illumination source like the black hole’s accretion disk in “Interstellar”. It’s sunlight, yes, but in this moment, it became…alien.

Annularity lasted for almost five minutes, but it seemed to pass considerably faster. I made sure to observe the vast majority of the partial phase of the eclipse as it receded before heading to a local restaurant, and thence back home.

The path of the October 14, 2023 annular eclipse

West Texas was an excellent site to observe the eclipse from, but it seems to have been something of a forbidden zone for reporters in the mass media, and even photographers. In all the news stories and social network buzz I’ve seen virtually nothing has come in from the Permian Basin. They go to San Antonio or Albuquerque to observe it, perhaps the most exotic and intimidating sort of locales in middle America they’re willing to venture to, with the more-intrepid outdoorsy types flitting to southern Utah, but there was no love for the wide-open plains of Midland? Look, I know it’s a desolate and very industrial area full of some rather rough-looking oilmen driving some really huge pickup trucks, but they don’t bite, I promise! The woman at the hotel I stayed at even gave me two pairs of eclipse glasses on check-in, courtesy of the city of Odessa!

All told the area was low-key pretty nice, especially for how affordable it is. I come away feeling like it’s almost too bad that the path of the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse, i.e. the really big event coming up, won’t be passing through the Permian or indeed any part of the American West, but that just means I’ll have the pleasure of another little road trip deep in the heart of Texas…or perhaps further afield (weather-depending…).

Path of the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse

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