Monday, May 21, 2012

Annular Eclipse Sunday, May 20, 2012 Kanarraville, Utah, USA

My wife, Betsy, and I looking through my grandfather's old welding lenses.

Photo taken at close to the same time at Kanarraville, UT by Kat Paulson. The image we saw through my grandfather's welding lenses had a greenish tint, but as Kat Paulson, we also stood directly in the umbra to see a perfect "ring of fire." The word penumbra is a combination of two Latin words paene: almost, and umbra: shadow--think of the words umbrella or umbrage. The Umbra is an inverted cone of shadow, the larger end starting at the moon, the smaller, ending at the earth, or the spot where the complete "ring of fire" can be seen. This cone passed over parts of China, Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and the western United States. It passed directly over Kanarraville, Utah.    
Though my radio was broken, I tapped my hands on the steering wheel and sang "Snow (Hey Oh)" by The Red Hot Chili Peppers. (I put in the link to add the song that was in my head most of the day. Listen to it as you read this, and maybe you'll share some of the same vibes.)

The van was filled with the spirit of fun. My kids laughed and teased, and, as we passed Utah Lake, I tried to tell them the history of the first Europeans to see the Lake, Friars Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante and their small expedition. I tried to get my kids to imagine the Timpanogos Utes, who lived around the lake, and what the Timpanogos might of thought their strange visitors. I pointed out Spanish Fork Canyon where the expedition came into the valley and asked my kids to try and imagine no freeway, subdivisions, industrial parks, but lush wetlands and riparian ecosystems cutting through the vast sagebrush-covered rises and foothills. Imagine the Ute people fishing at the lake shore and hunting in the marshes and gathering the abundant roots and plants and seeds. I wondered if it wouldn't be fitting to call Utah lake, Lake Timpanogos as the Utes had called it. Then again, "Utah" is in honor of the Ute-speaking peoples who had called that land home--and do so today. Still, it was the Spanish that called these people the "Yuta" people. If they call themselves "Nuchu," shouldn't we do the same?

My thoughts all seemed to sync with the feeling of time and history passing under a grand celestial clockwork. The sun was a little past its apex in the sky, and I knew somewhere hidden behind the shining, blue atmosphere, the moon followed its ancient course and would soon be casting its shadow over the western United States and, particularly, a little town called Kanarraville, Utah, which, to me, at that point, was merely a dot on the road atlas tucked behind my water bottle, a bag of dried cranberries, and the Pringles my kids loved to munch on.
Bennion Gardner from Magna, Utah was in Cedar City, just nine miles north of where we were when he took these photos by simply using a special pair of glasses as a light filter. Notice the difference between the photos taken in California above. Bennion was in the direct path of the umbra, seeing what we were seeing.
 Friday afternoon, at the last minute after work, I went to the Clark Planetarium to pick up some special glasses to view the eclipse. I was already in an awful mood (with the added aggravation of trying to navigate through Salt Lake traffic and find a parking place) as I walked up to the desk. A girl, probably with an attitude as wicked as mine, had rudely taped a sign to her shirt saying something to the effect of "We are out of eclipse glasses!" which only made me want to as her if she had any and where I could get them. But I didn't. I turned and left and regretted having passed on such a funny impulse. Luckily, on the highway, with the Oquirrh Mountains before me still fresh and green from rain earlier that day, I remembered a box of welding equipment my grandfather had left behind many years ago. I still had it in the basement. I thought I had seen some dark welding lenses. Sure enough I was right. They were the perfect tint. I tried them out standing in my back yard and looking up at the sun. They were so dark I feared the perfect green circle I saw might have been too dim, but they worked out just fine. I had enough for everyone to pass around and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime event. Those lenses in their brittle paper pouches had to be fifty years old or older. My grandfather had retired as a welder at the Arthur Mill at Kennicott in Magna back in 1976--I remember trying to pick at his retirement cake at the party and getting shooed away. Who would have thought his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be using those lenses to see an annular eclipse? Thanks, Grandpa.

We left Utah valley, following I-15 past Mount Nebo that overlooked the small city of Nephi--the city where my grandfather was born and raised, and onward toward Cedar City and the little town of Kanarraville just a few miles south. The terrain and geology slowly changed. We left behind the valleys where the ancient Lake Bonneville had left its mark some 40,000 years ago in the high foothills--a long, steady shoreline covered in scrub oak and grasses. Cedar trees took over the valleys and mountains that run along the edge of the Great Basin that I seemed to feel stretching thousands of square miles to the west. I thought of the Payute people and the more ancient Freemont Indians who had gazed upon those same cedar trees, mountains, and valley's and had loved them. I remembered my grandpa telling me of the pottery and arrowheads the farmers used to plow up as they turned sagebrush hunting grounds into irrigated fields.

The closer we got to Cedar City the more the relatively new volcanic characteristics of the terrain became apparent. The Wasatch mountain range gave way to the Pahvant and Tushar ranges. Hundreds of millions of years ago an ancient sea had covered much of the western United States. As the North American tectonic plates moved, stretched and compressed, mountain ranges and valleys were formed. What was once seabed had become mountain peaks. Not more than a few million years ago, central and southeastern Utah had been a hotspot for volcanic activity. I kept my eyes open for the ancient cinder cones and basalt flows along I-15 in Millard county. I never cease to be excited when I can see where newer lava flows and ash cover the more ancient rock beneath. It's most apparent were the ground had been cut and blasted to make way for the freeway.

We finally reached Kanarraville and found a dirt road that took us into the eastern foothills. We parked in the shade of a cedar tree, took out our folding chairs, and put them in the shade among the sagebrush and tuff and andesite boulders that dotted the hillside--more testament to the relatively recent (in geologic reckoning) volcanic activity of central-southern Utah. It was still early in the afternoon, so we took out the cooler, made sandwiches, and talked about coyotes, mountain lions, and rattle snakes. I relaxed and breathed the fresh air tinted with sagebrush and cedar. We took turns looking up at the sun through the lens, until finally, at around 6:40 PM, I stood and saw the edge of the moon, a dark disk, begin to take a bite out of the sun. We were riding the earth into the moon's penumbra. What was more exciting was that we were in the right place (and time), that tiny point on the earth where we would pass under the moon's umbra, and because the moon was at it's apogee (greatest distance from earth) the eclipse wouldn't be total, but would only cover most of the sun, creating the "ring of fire" effect, hence "annular" from the Latin annulus, or ring.

The moon travels around the earth in an ellipsis. Its orbit isn't a perfect circle, so when the moon is at its closest distance, about 221,473 miles away, we call it the lunar perigee. On May 5th of this year the moon was at its perigee, so we experienced a "super moon." You could visibly tell it was closer. Sunday, May 20th, the moon was at its apogee, about 252,722 miles away from the earth.

At the moment the move moved into position over the sun, the quality of light became strange and dim. The color of the sky above us turned a shiny, steely gray-blue, and the shadows changed. Though we purposely tried to avoid the large crowds along the highway and filling town, we heard a rising roar of voices and applause. A feeling came over me that I was seeing something special, and I quickly made sure each of my kids, Tara, Noelle, and Charlie, had their lenses. My sister, Bonnie, and her son David were also with us. We shared that moment and I felt a profound satisfaction that we had made the effort to take such a long and successful trip to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event.

While we watched and cheered and marveled, my daughter pointed out a little jackrabbit that had come out of the brush into the road close by. It sat as transfixed as we were, facing the sun, and I wondered if it had come out because of the strange light and the roaring, distant voices, to marvel as we did at that wonderful moment. 

The eclipse created strange light effects. Look at the double shadow of my daughter cast over the dirt road.
The spaces in the cedar trees became tiny pinhole cameras, casting hundreds of inverted images of rings over the road. This is the same effect that is created when you put a punch a hole in a box and point the hole toward the sun. The light will cast a tiny inverted image of the sun onto a flat, smooth surface.
More of those tiny, inverted rings shining on the van door.
Here was at the moment the moon moved into position over the sun, creating the "ring of fire." Even that diminished light was too much for my daughter's little camera. Too bad we didn't have a better camera with one of those expensive filters! We tried to use the lenses, but it wouldn't work.

As the event waned, and the sun began to brighten, I couldn't help but think of a quote by Carl Sagan:
"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'this is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.' --Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Carl, could you have been there with me, a religious mind and soul, at that moment, and shared that moment with me mind to mind, you would have understood when my heart cried out to the grand organizer, architect, and creator: "How great thou art!"