What Is A Solar Eclipse?
A solar eclipse, or an “eclipse of the Sun,” occurs when the Moon is directly between Earth and the Sun, and the Moon casts a shadow over Earth. A solar eclipse can only take place when the Moon is in the “new” phase.
What is a Lunar Eclipse?
A lunar eclipse happens when Earth lines up directly between the Sun and Moon, blocking the Sun’s light from reaching the Moon. In a total lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow completely covers the Moon, turning it a coppery shade of red, sometimes known as a “Blood Moon.”
A lunar eclipse can only take place when when the Moon is in the full phase.
What’s more, you’ll be able to watch any lunar eclipse with the naked eye—no special glasses or filters are needed.
Eclipses in 2021
1. May 26 – Total Eclipse of the Moon
This eclipse favors the Pacific Rim, that is, the geographic area surrounding the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Rim covers the western shores of North America and South America, and the shores of Australia, eastern Asia and the islands of the Pacific. Hawaiians get a great view with the eclipse happening high in their sky in the middle of the night.
Across North America, western regions will be able to see the total phase and a part of the closing partial stages before moonset intervenes. Central regions will be able to watch the start of the partial stages up to (or almost to) totality before the Moon sets. Eastern regions must be content with perhaps a small scallop of darkness appearing on the Moon’s left-hand edge, or perhaps only a faint shading – the result of the Earth’s penumbral shadow. The Canadian Maritime provinces will be completely shut out as the eclipse begins after the Moon has already set. The Moon will pass well to the north of the center of the Earth’s dark umbra; the uppermost part of the Moon will be only 21 miles (34 km) from its outer edge. That’s why totality will last only 15 minutes.
Times listed are Eastern.
- Moon Enters Penumbra: 4:48 a.m.
- Moon Enters Umbra: 5:45 a.m.
- Total Eclipse Begins: 7:11 a.m.
- Mid-Eclipse: 7:20 a.m.
- Total Eclipse Ends: 7:26 a.m.
- Moon Leaves Umbra: 8:52 a.m.
- Moon Leaves Penumbra: 9:50 a.m.
- Magnitude of the Eclipse: 1.0095
2. June 10 – Annular Eclipse of the Sun
Because at this moment in time the Moon is situated at a distance of 251,200 miles (404,300 km) from Earth, its disk will appear somewhat smaller than the Sun; 5.7 percent smaller to be exact. As such, when the Moon passes squarely in front of the Sun, it will not totally cover it, but instead a ring of sunlight will remain visible. Hence, the term “annular” eclipse, derived from the Latin “annulus” meaning ring-shaped. Call it a “penny-on-nickel effect” with the nickel representing the Sun and the penny, the Moon.
This will be a rather unusual eclipse in that the path of annularity tracks in a strange manner, moving northeast, then north and finally in a northwest direction, through central and northern Canada, northwest Greenland, past the North Pole and finally ending over northeast Siberia.
Because the Moon’s shadow is striking the Earth at a very oblique angle, the path width is abnormally large: averaging about 380 miles (600 km) wide. In the province of Ontario, those located in Wabakimi Provincial Park will be able to see the rising Sun appear not as a circle of orange light, but rather, as a ring. After passing over James Bay and southern and eastern portions of Hudson Bay, the path moves over northern Quebec and after crossing the Hudson Strait, moves over Nunavut, the newest, largest, and northernmost territory of Canada; separated officially from the Northwest Territories in 1999. The Inuit hamlet of Pangnirtung, nicknamed the “Switzerland of the Arctic” and home to 1,500 inhabitants, played host to a total eclipse of the Sun in 1979, and will now have an opportunity to see an annular eclipse lasting for 2 minutes 38 seconds, beginning at 6:10 a.m. EDT.
The point of Greatest Eclipse occurs not far from tiny Hans Island, a small, uninhabited barren knoll located in the center of the Kennedy Channel of Nares Strait—the strait that separates Ellesmere Island from northern Greenland and connects Baffin Bay with the Lincoln Sea. There is an ongoing dispute between Canada and Denmark as to the Island’s sovereignty. It is here that the ring phase will last the longest: 3 minutes 51 seconds. About twenty minutes later, the shadow sideswipes the North Pole, then turns northwest, to leave the Earth’s surface a little over a half hour later over the Kolyma region of the Russian Far East.
For those who live in New York State, New England, as well as southern portions of Ontario and Quebec, there will be an opportunity to see a most unusual sunrise this morning as the Sun will rise looking like a crescent with cusps pointed upward. Toronto will see 86 percent of the Sun’s diameter eclipsed, 85 percent in Montreal, and 80 percent for New York and Boston. The closing stages of the eclipse will be visible from Minnesota, the Great Lakes, and Ohio Valley, as well as the Carolinas and the Mid-Atlantic States.
But be careful! Staring at the sun with unprotected eyes or inadequate filters during the partial stages can cause severe retinal damage or blindness.
- Partial Eclipse Begins: 4:12 a.m.
- Annular Eclipse Begins: 5:50 a.m.
- Greatest Eclipse: 6:42 a.m.
- Annular Eclipse Ends: 7:34 a.m.
- Partial Eclipse Ends: 9:11 a.m.
- Maximum duration of annularity: 3 minutes 51.2 seconds
3. November 19 – Partial Eclipse of the Moon
North and South America are in very good position to see this lunar eclipse. It will take place in the predawn hours with the visible stages ending before moonset. The Moon will slide through the southern portion of the Earth’s dark umbra and at greatest eclipse all but 2½ percent of the moon’s diameter will be immersed in the shadow. Because some of the sunlight striking the Earth is diffused and scattered by our atmosphere, the Earth’s shadow is not completely dark. Enough of this light reaches the Moon to give it a faint coppery glow. Combined with the remaining uneclipsed yellow sliver, will create what some call the “Japanese Lantern Effect”; a strikingly beautiful sight for the naked eye, or viewing with binoculars or a small telescope. The very beginning stages of the eclipse will be visible from the United Kingdom and parts of northern Europe prior to moonset. Eastern Asia and Australia will also see it after moonrise later that evening.
- Moon Enters Penumbra: 1:02 a.m.
- Moon Enters Umbra: 2:19 a.m.
- Greatest Eclipse: 4:04 a.m.
- Moon Leaves Umbra: 5:47 a.m.
- Moon Leaves Penumbra: 7:04 a.m.
- Magnitude of the Eclipse: 0.974
4. December 4 – Total Eclipse of the Sun
The final eclipse of 2021 will be visible only from the icy continent of Antarctica. The path of totality, averaging 265 miles (427 km) wide, will sweep inland south-southwest from the Weddell Sea, passing over Berkner Island and the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. Then the path continues across West Antarctica, darkening the Executive Committee Range (a mountain range consisting of five major volcanoes), before moving offshore at the Ross Sea. For even the most ardent eclipse chaser, this will prove to be a tough assignment; although a few hardy souls did see the last total solar eclipse visible here (in 2003) from the ground; others overflew this frozen land in commercial aircraft.
An associated, small partial eclipse can be glimpsed from parts of South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, as well as Tasmania and southern sections of New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, and a small slice of southernmost New Zealand and adjacent Stewart Island.
- Partial Eclipse Begins: 12:29 a.m.
- Total Eclipse Begins: 2:00 a.m.
- Greatest Eclipse: 2:33 a.m.
- Total Eclipse Ends: 3:06 a.m.
- Partial Eclipse Ends: 4:37 a.m.
- Maximum duration of totality: 1 minutes 54.4 seconds
Why Aren’t There Eclipses Every Month?
If solar and lunar eclipses occur when the Sun, Moon, and Earth form a straight line, why don’t we have a solar eclipse every time the Moon is in the new phase or a lunar eclipse every time the Moon is full—both of which happen every month?
And why do solar and lunar eclipses always seem to happen so close together? If you look back through the last several years of Farmers’ Almanac astronomy calendars, you’ll notice that solar and lunar eclipses always seem to fall within a couple of weeks of one another. Case in point: May 26, 2021 we had a lunar eclipse, and June 10, 2021, a solar eclipse.
It’s All About the Angle of the Orbit
It turns out that the answer to both of those questions is connected to the angle of the Moon’s orbit, which is inclined about 5° from the ecliptic, another name for the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For eclipses to happen with every full or new Moon, the Moon and Earth would have to orbit at the exact same angle.
It takes the Moon a little less than a month (29.53 days) to orbit the Earth. In that time, it crosses the ecliptic plane twice. Each of these crossings is called a node. If the Moon is new or full at the time it crosses, a perfect alignment of Sun, Moon and Earth, called a syzygy (from the Greek word for “bound together”), occurs, resulting in an eclipse.
Back-to-Back Eclipse Events?
This is also why solar and lunar eclipses tend to fall within about two weeks of one another. If the Moon approaches close enough to the ecliptic during a full Moon for a lunar eclipse to occur, it will once again approach the ecliptic about two weeks later, when it’s new, causing a solar eclipse, and vice versa.
The periods of time during which the Sun appears, from the Earth, to be close enough to the Moon to allow for an eclipse to occur is called an eclipse season. There are two roughly 34-day-long eclipse seasons each year, falling about 25 weeks apart.
At least two, and sometimes three, eclipses occur every eclipse season. If the first eclipse in the season falls at the very beginning of that season, there will be enough time for two more eclipses.
It’s even possible, though very rare, to have three eclipses in one calendar month. The last time that happened was during the year 2000, but it won’t happen again until 2206!
Because the space between eclipse seasons is about a week shy of half a year, eclipse seasons migrate backwards through our calendar, coming slightly earlier each year.
Most years have four or five eclipses, but it’s possible to have a year with six, or even seven. For seven eclipses to be possible, a single eclipse season must fall during December and carry over into the new calendar year. The last time we saw a year with seven eclipses was 1982. If you don’t remember that, you may still be around to see the next one in 2038.
When Will We See The Next Total Solar Eclipse?
If you were lucky enough to see and experience The Great American Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017 (which was a total eclipse of the Sun), most likely the very first words out of your mouth were, “when can I see another one?” Or if you missed it, you only have to wait another 8 years.
Prior to 2017, there had only been three total solar eclipses visible from the contiguous U.S. dating back to 1960. In contrast, today’s young generation of Americans will see five total solar eclipses over the USA in the next 35 years. This will be a defining feature of their lifetimes.
- April 8, 2024: this path will stretch from central Texas to northern New England. The duration of totality will average just under 4 minutes (4 minutes 27 seconds in Texas). Interestingly, the path of totality will again encompass Carbondale, Illinois, who played host to this year’s spectacle – their second total eclipse in less than 7 years!
- March 30, 2033: We should also note that a swath of our vast 49th state of Alaska will be darkened by the Moon’s shadow on this date. The northern and western part of the “Great Land State” will be inside the totality path. Nome will see 2 minutes 30 seconds of total eclipse. Alaska also played host to the total eclipses of 1963 and 1972, both occurring in the month of July.
- August 23, 2044: this solar eclipse will envelop much of northeastern Montana and a slice of westernmost North Dakota near local sunset. Totality will last only around 100 seconds, but the width of the shadow path is immense: in excess of 300 miles.
- August 12, 2045: A truly great eclipse will visit the United States, stretching east-southeast along a broad arc from northern California, through Kansas/Oklahoma and then down into Florida. Totality will last unusually long, ranging from 4 minutes 22 seconds along the Pacific coast to 6 minutes 06 seconds at Port St. Lucie, Florida.
- March 30, 2052: will see the Moon’s shadow clip the southern tip of southern Texas (Brownsville will see 1 minute 48 seconds of totality). The shadow then continues northeast across the Gulf of Mexico, grazing the Louisiana Parishes that border Barataria Bay, the Mississippi Delta and Breton Sound, before streaking across the Florida Panhandle, clipping the southeast corner of Alabama, rolling through the lower third of Georgia before heading out to sea at the South Carolina coast. And yes, as was the case in 2017, Charleston, South Carolina will be in the totality path!
- May 1st, 2079, nine minutes after sunrise, the Moon will totally eclipse the Sun for just over 2 minutes as seen from the Tri-State Area; New York’s first total solar eclipse since 1925.
Solar Eclipse Myths and Superstitions
In our technological age, relatively rare occurrences like total solar eclipses are well understood by scientists, and thanks to the news and internet, we know eclipses are coming well in advance; information about what they are and what to expect are readily available, and so we look forward to them. But in the days when life was harder and accurate information scarcer, eclipses were often seen as a mysterious and unwelcome disruption of the natural order.
Counting on the Sun and Moon
Man has always looked to the heavens, particularly to the Sun and Moon, to mark the passage of time, and provide social stability; daily and seasonal cycles have always been very important to agriculture-based societies. So what happens when the regular, predictable pattern of day and night, and light and dark that we all depend on, is unexpectedly disrupted?
Imagine yourself as a simple farmer in ancient times, out working in the fields, and suddenly, without warning, it begins to grow eerily dark, with the Sun still high in the sky. You glance upward to see what looks like a “bite” being taken out of the Sun. Sometimes the “bite” becomes larger and larger until the Sun seems to disappear altogether, leaving only a ghostly halo. It grows so dark that you begin to see the stars twinkling in the sky as if it were night. Pretty frightening, right?
It’s understandable, then, that solar eclipses were met with anxiety and dread. And it’s no surprise that folklore, myths, and legends about our most prominent celestial neighbors abound in many cultures around the globe.
Taking A Bite Out Of The Sun?
Most cultures viewed a solar eclipse as some mythic creature devouring the daytime Sun. In ancient China, it was a celestial dragon, and in southeast Asia, they imagined it to be a giant turtle, frog, or toad.
In Korea, it was thought that fire dogs were trying to steal the Sun or Moon, and when they bit it, an eclipse resulted. For the Vikings it was a hungry wolf named Sköll (whose name means “Treachery”) that raced across the sky, hunting down and eating the Sun. Even to cultures like Greece and Rome, which had enough mathematical and observational knowledge to be able to predict eclipses, they were often viewed as bad omens, portents of evil, and astrological events to be feared.
In Hindu mythology, it was believed that the demon Rahu stole an elixir of immortality, called amrita, but was beheaded by the god Vishnu before he could fully swallow it. Consequently, the demon’s severed head, forever alive, floats around and occasionally devours the Sun. To this day, in India, people make noise by banging pots and pans and setting off fireworks during a solar eclipse to scare Rahu away and make him cough up the Sun.
A northwestern Native American tribe has a legend that a solar eclipse is the result of a quarrel between a great bear and the Sun, ending with the bear taking a huge bite out of it. In fact, the tribe’s name for a solar eclipse translates to Sun got bit by a bear.
Emperors, Kings, and rulers throughout history have been particularly nervous about eclipses. Their court astrologers interpreted them as bad omens that the monarch’s power was in danger. In ancient Babylon, there was the practice of hiring “stand-in” kings to sit on the throne during an eclipse, so any harm would come to them rather than the real king.
In 1133 King Henry I died shortly after a solar eclipse, and some in his court had, in fact, assumed that it was tied to the astronomical event.
Lunar Eclipse Myths and Superstitions
Here’s a look at some of the stories, beliefs, myths, and superstitions about lunar eclipses from around the world:
- Pay it forward: Tibetan Buddhists believe that the good (and bad) deeds you do during a lunar eclipse are multiplied tenfold.
- A time to forgive: According to South African myth, the Sun and Moon fight during an eclipse. It’s up to the people to come together and encourage the celestial bodies to resolve their feud.
- Coming changes: Many Native American tribes say lunar eclipses are a sign of a transformation to come here on Earth (based on their belief that the Moon controls and regulates our planet).
- A sign of the apocalypse: One of the most widely shared sayings here in the US about total lunar eclipses comes from The Bible. According to Joel 2:31, “The Sun will turn to darkness, and the Moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.”
- Avoid eating? In India, people avoid cooking, eating, and drinking during lunar and solar eclipses. They believe food spoils faster in the absence of the Sun’s light and may bring on indigestion.
- Relax, moms! In several cultures, expectant mothers are advised to stay indoors when the Moon turns dark for fear it may curse their unborn child. They should also rest from housework, since using a knife or other sharp object is believed to cause birthmarks.
- Make some noise! Incan civilizations believed that Blood Moons occurred when a mythological jaguar attacked and ate the Moon. To drive it away and stop its slaughter, the people would shake spears at it and make their dogs bark at the night sky. Today’s skywatchers still give a nod to this ritual by watching lunar eclipses with noisemakers in hand to “scare off” whatever is swallowing the Moon.
So whether you believe lunar eclipses are spooky or spectacular, you can’t deny they’re a fascinating sight to see.
Eclipses in Folklore
Not all of the tales associated with eclipses are negative.
- Herodotus, an ancient Greek scholar, and a battle in the 6th Century B.C. between the Medes and the Lydians, which was raging until a solar eclipse began. It is said the soldiers threw down their arms and stopped fighting, believing that the gods disapproved of the war.
- And in Italy, it is believed that if you plant flowers during a total eclipse, they will bloom with more vibrant colors than those planted at any other time.
To this day, superstitions persist about eclipses. Many cultures still believe that eclipses are evil omens that bring death and destruction. One of the most pervasive is that eclipses are dangerous to young children and pregnant women. Many, even in our modern times, won’t venture outside during a solar eclipse because of the belief that they will be harmed.
In India, food prepared prior to a solar eclipse is routinely thrown out, believing that the eclipse has somehow contaminated it and made it unsafe to eat.
Fortunately, most of us know that solar eclipses are nothing to fear, and we will enjoy them for what they are — a rare and beautiful celestial event!