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The Webfooted Astronomer - September 1999


Sonnenfinsternis in Bavaria (Solar Eclipse in Bavaria)

by Mary Ingersoll

The days leading up to the last total solar eclipse of the century in Europe were similar to the promotion of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace here in the States. More than 260,000 tourists had come to Munich for the eclipse and every hotel room in the city was taken. While some businesses were passing out solar viewing glasses for free, others were being sold for 25 Marks ($13.51 US). Parties were being planned, not only for large groups in public plazas, but also private and corporate shindigs on the roofs of the city's skyscrapers.

The weather service was predicting clouds and rain for the morning with afternoon clearing for eclipse day. The television specials during the previous week were about predictions regarding the "end of the world," possible crop failures, and the drop of the value of the German Mark, all due to the solar eclipse. The news constantly repeated "do not look at the Sun without your solar glasses." However, the glasses were all sold out a week before the eclipse, and people were desperate for the little cardboard and Mylar viewers, and clear skies.

For the sake of nostalgia, I decided to view the eclipse from my Mother’s hometown of Rottenburg an der Laaber, which is 90 miles north of Munich (only 35 minutes away by autobahn!) and in the center of the shadow's path. It's a small rural town full of practical Germans. On the morning of August 11, the skies were filled with clouds, and the streets were wet from rain that had fallen that night. By 10 a.m. the sky with filled with broken clouds, allowing the sun to shine through occasionally. More clouds were coming in from the southwest, pushed along by a gentle breeze. I was sitting in the trunk of my rental car just outside of my aunt's apartment building (with a clear view to the east, south, and west) with a notebook and pen, solar filter, and an umbrella.

10:20 a.m.: The clouds in the east were breaking up, but more clouds were en route from the southwest. 10:53 a.m.: A break in clouds. 11:15 a.m.: Contact! Thick clouds to the south, breeze were picking up, and more clouds were coming in from west. 11:33 a.m.: The clouds were thin enough so that I could see the eclipse's progress. The wind was increasing with occasional gusts.

Most of the locals were indoors at this time, preparing dinner. (Germans eat the main meal of the day at noon.) Some came out on the balconies to look at the sun (and me). All of them had their TVs on. In the south the clouds were breaking up. (Only 1 hour and 5 minutes to go. Come on sky! Work with me!)

11:45 a.m.: As the “bite” grew bigger the people around me grew more excited. I could hear them behind me from their balconies, but the street remained empty of people. Thick clouds came in fast! The temperature dropped, and the wind picked up again. Darker clouds were coming in from a distance, and a light rain beginning to fall.

12 p.m.: The church bells began ringing the noon time toll, and the rain continued to fall. I took cover under the trunk lid of my rented car. A few people on the sidewalks with umbrellas were hurrying home, no one looked toward the sun. Reports were starting to come in on the news that viewing was obscured by clouds in France.

12:15 p.m.: I took a few minutes to run upstairs and see news from England. Totality occurred there at 12:10 p.m. They were under heavy clouds and rain. The people were soaked, but had a rip-roaring good time.

Back outside I saw that the sun was now more than 50 percent covered by the Moon. The clouds grew thicker but the rain had stopped and the sun could be viewed through a filter of clouds. The temperature was reported to me by one of the neighbors from her balcony—18 degrees Celsius (65 degrees F.) The street lights came on.

12:22 p.m.: A light sprinkle began falling again. Another break in the clouds revealed the crescent sun. 12:28 p.m. It was raining heavier, with thunder in the distance.

12:30 p.m.: The wind was increasing, and the clouds were growing thicker and darker. The sky was going gray from the thick clouds. There were no obvious breaks anywhere. My cousin came down to view the eclipse with me. He’s wasn't happy with the weather. He cursed under his breath. Across the street was a small field inhabited by three sheep and one white horse. Everyone else had gone indoors to view the eclipse on TV in the comfort of their warm, dry living rooms.

12:38 p.m.: Totality. The shadow flowed over the clouds, turning them from gray to black. The sky above us was dark as night, in the distance at the horizon, I could see pink and blue clouds lit by sunlight. The birds were twittering in the trees. There was lightening and thunder overhead! It felt cooler, but not significantly so because the clouds cooled everything down before the shadow got there.

12:40 p.m.: Light returned, revealing a dark and dreary rainy summer day. The locals viewed it all on TV (practical, you know). My cousin walked off in a huff, completely disappointed in the results. Muttering about the solar glasses being a waste of money.

12:55 p.m.: The clouds were clearing out to the east. More light was filtering through. People were back on the streets again, attending to their chores. I closed the trunk and headed on into the apartment to see what happened on TV. The reporters reminded me of Alan Macfarlane's "Solar Eclipse from Hell." They were interviewing local astronomers and tourists who have traveled here to see the eclipse and asked them how they felt about not being able to see it. "How depressed do you really feel? How much did you spend to come here? What will you do to get over this great disappointment? What went through your mind when it started to rain?" The eclipse may have fizzled, but the party must go on! In Stuttgart and Munich there were all-day parties that went on through the night. (The people in Munich never let anything get in the way of a good party! I had been invited to stay in Munich for the eclipse, so I'm regretting my "nostalgia.")

By 4 p.m. "Solar Eclipse Fever" is over and the sun is shining brightly. The clouds are gone, and temperatures are in the upper 70s F. The next day it was reported that one person went blind when he watched the solar eclipse through binoculars, and two others were being hospitalized, for eye damage caused by viewing the eclipse without protection. On August 19, at 12:01 a.m., Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace opened in Germany. I saw a total of two billboards in Munich, one notice at a magazine vending machine, and one toy store had a very small display at the very back of the store. Rain or shine, the solar eclipse was such a significant event for Europe that even George Lucas couldn’t overcome it.

The next total solar eclipse is on June 21, 2001, in southern Africa. And the next total solar eclipse in the United States is on August 21, 2017, running from Lincoln City, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina.

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