Eclipse to Cast Shadow of Excitement Over Europe, Africa

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 28, 2006
There is nothing to fear from a total eclipse of the sun, a prominent
seismologist recently explained to a nervous public in Turkey.

Turkey is one of the countries set to experience a total solar eclipse tomorrow, and many Turks had become worried that the eclipse could cause earthquakes. An eclipse in 1999 was followed by two quakes in northeastern Turkey, which killed some 20,000 people.

Fear of earthquakes is just one reaction evoked by tomorrow's celestial event.

People from Brazil to Mongolia are making preparations for the eclipse, ranging from doomsday predictions to travel arrangements.

Even scientists are susceptible to the sensation caused by an eclipse. Among them is Paul Doherty, astronomer with the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco, California. He will lead a webcast of the event from an ancient amphitheater in Side, Turkey.

"I impress upon people that when the sun is replaced by blackness, their bodies will respond emotionally," said Doherty, a veteran eclipse-watcher.


A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves directly between the sun and the Earth. (See an interactive map of our solar system.)

The darkness allows brighter stars and planets to appear in the middle of the day.

At totality, when the entire sun is blocked, the shimmering white corona of the sun appears around the silhouette of the moon.

"I describe the amazing whitish corona extending out from the black region where the sun should be as a black-bodied spider stretching white legs across the sky," Doherty said.

As the Earth turns, the moon's shadow, or umbra, moves across the planet.

Tomorrow's "path of totality" starts at dawn in eastern Brazil and sweeps across the Atlantic over western and northern Africa. It then crosses the Mediterranean Sea and into Turkey before traveling through central Asia. The path ends at sunset in northwestern Mongolia.

A partial eclipse will be visible from all of Europe and most of Africa and Asia.

A total eclipse of the sun is not an unusual event. There have been 16 total solar eclipses over the past 25 years. But the path of totality is narrow, which means most locations have to wait centuries to experience a total eclipse.

Tomorrow's eclipse will be particularly lengthy, lasting just over four minutes in the Libyan Desert, the site of its longest duration.

Doom and Tourism in Africa

The first country in Africa to experience tomorrow's eclipse is Ghana. The Ghana News Agency (GNA) reported that at least one Islamic scholar there had said the event signals "the world coming to an end."

But such doomsday predictions have been ignored by most Ghanaians, some of whom still remember the last time the country experienced a total solar eclipse in 1947.

Ghana is one of several hot spots where eclipse followers have flocked to witness the spectacle firsthand. Hotel rooms along the Ghanaian coast have been booked for months in anticipation of the event.

Ferdinand Ayim, chairman of Ghana's National Planning Committee on the Solar Eclipse, told the GNA that the solar eclipse provides free advertising for the country's tourism industry.

The most popular eclipse-viewing destinations for tourists to view the eclipse are in the Mediterranean region.

About a thousand visitors are expected to descend on the tiny Greek island of Kastellorizo, which will offer one of Europe's best views of the event.

Meanwhile, an 80-member team of Indian astronomers and schoolchildren will conduct a series of eclipse experiments from the Turkish beach town of Antalya.

And Libya, which normally doesn't grant tourist visas to Westerners, has issued thousands of special one-week visas to people who want to view the eclipse from the Libyan Desert, perhaps the best place in the world to see it.

Excitement in Turkey

Rob Semper is a director of San Francisco's Exploratorium who is on hand in Side, Turkey, to assist with the museum's webcast of the eclipse. He says there is great anticipation among both locals and scientists there in the hours leading up to the event.

"It has been interesting to watch all of this international excitement extend to the local populace," he said via email.

"While people here are interested in viewing the eclipse, they are as interested in the fact that this is becoming ground zero for eclipse-watchers. Today we had five TV crews covering us covering the eclipse."

The eclipse also offers scientists a rare opportunity to study the sun, Semper added.

"While much solar physics can be done from space- or ground-based telescopes, there is still some interesting research to be done during eclipses," he said.

A NASA team in Egypt will be using the eclipse to test new instruments, with the help of the Exploratorium's webcast, he said.

But the primary purpose of the museum's coverage is simply to share the wonder of a solar eclipse, he said.

"Our main reason for [being here] to cover this event live is to foster an interest in science by providing the public … with the opportunity to experience the awe and amazing beauty that this exciting natural event provides," Semper said.

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