Solar eclipse

March 19, 2015, by Lucy

Looking ahead to the solar eclipse (and back to the archives)

 20th March 2015

Tomorrow morning, across much of the UK, we’ll have the rare opportunity to witness a solar eclipse. For around 7 minutes (around 9:30am in the Nottingham area), up to 98% of the sun will be obscured by the moon. If you’re in the Faroe Islands you might be lucky enough to witness a total solar eclipse, but for most of us the effect will be ‘deep’ partial (around 90% in the Nottingham area). The approach of this event led me to have a look through the archival materials we’ve gathered so far for historical accounts of solar eclipses witnessed in the UK. Although eclipses are not ‘extreme weather events’, we are still recording them in our work, alongside the appearance of other atmospheric phenomena. Because we can accurately calculate when eclipses occurred, references to eclipses in historical documents also enable us to accurately date other historical events, including weather. In the last 500 years only eight total solar eclipses have been visible from the UK. The BBC have published a great online interactive guide explaining why total solar eclipses are so rare.

Historical solar eclipses

Many of you will remember the total solar eclipse of 11th August 1999 – the last total solar eclipse visible from the UK until 2090. Did you do anything special to mark the occasion? or keep any souvenirs from that day? The 1999 solar eclipse was one of the most widely viewed in history. If you’d like to relive that day, The Guardian has put together an image gallery.

22nd April 1715 (3rd May new calendar)

The earliest solar eclipse we have in documented in our materials occurred almost 300 years ago, on 22nd April 1715. We have two mentions of this event. The first comes from the Alkborough Parish Register where it is listed amongst other notable events of that time in a memorandum, as a ‘warning to the world’:

A remembrance in the year 1713 a great drought began at Michaelmas and continued about one year, none such known in the […]

And also a remembrance of a […] great winde which happened upon the first day of February 1714 which blew down many thousand trees in Lincolnshire & […] a great part of the […] in the country as well in other countys as this to astonishment of the beholders no memory of any man living […] the like […] by winde.

And […] another great warning […] to the world of a great eclipse of the sunn, which happened on Friday the 22nd day of April I think […] (Lincolnshire Archives, ALKBOROUGH PAR/1/3 ).

In ancient times eclipses were often seen as omens or portents of terrible events that would bring death or destruction (particularly bad for monarchs), and although there was more of a scientific understanding by 1715, this interpretation did not entirely disappear. The Weather Network has listed some superstitions associated with solar eclipses. King Richard III may well have seen the solar eclipse of March 16th 1485 as a bad omen as it coincided with the death of his wife Anne and five months later he would also be dead, killed at the Battle of Bosworth. The second mention of the 1715 eclipse is within the printed matter of Joseph Woolley’s diary for 1803. It was common for most pre-printed diaries to carry lists of notable events, including eclipses:

1715 – A total eclipse of the sun, April 22 (Nottinghamshire Archives, DD/311/2).

The 1715 eclipse was also observed by Edmund Halley (a Fellow of the Royal Society and later Astronomer Royal), best known of course for predicting the path of the comet which was subsequently named after him. Halley predicted the passage of the eclipse over England and realised that it would cause general excitement. Using his mathematical equations he produced a map illustrating the path of the eclipse (see below) and arranged for it to be widely distributed, requesting “the Curious to observe what they could about it, but more especially to note the Time of Continuance of total Darkness, as requiring no other instrument than a Pendulum Clock with which most Persons are furnish’d.” He received many good accounts from around the country though the country’s two Professors of Astronomy did rather let him down, “My worthy Colleague Dr John Keill by reason of Clouds saw nothing distinctly at Oxford […] and the Reverend Mr Roger Cotes at Cambridge had the misfortune to be opprest by too much company, so that, though the Heavens were very favourable, yet he miss’d both the time of the Beginning of the Eclipse and that of total Darkness.”

Edmund Halley's map of the passage of the solar eclipse over England, 22 April 1715

Edmund Halley’s map of the passage of the solar eclipse over England, 22 April 1715

The next total solar eclipse was in 1724 and was again observed by Halley. We haven’t yet come across any accounts of this event in our own searches. After that, there was no total solar eclipse visible from the UK until 1925, and unfortunately we haven’t yet come across any accounts of that one either. We do however have the next one that happened on 29 June 1927:

William Richmond in his diary entry for June 29 – total eclipse of sun, great excitement all over country (Nottinghamshire Archives, DD/2535/5).

And the next, on 30th June 1954:

Eric Pochin in his diary entry for June 30 – Eclipse of the sun at 1:30ST. I saw it as a quarter moon behind their cloud as I was coming from lunch at Enid’s (10D70/5, Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland Record Office).

If you’d like to explore more historical solar eclipses NASA have a solar eclipse website and there are a variety of online databases that you can search too.

Solar eclipses and the weather

During an eclipse temperatures fall (as the sunlight is blocked out) and winds tend to slacken. Tomorrow scientists will be paying close attention to the effects that the solar eclipse has on the weather and are hoping to resolve the debate surrounding the existence of the “eclipse wind”. The University of Reading is running the National Eclipse Weather Experiment and is invited everyone to submit their weather observations so that the changes can be studied and mapped.

Today many of the newspapers have stories about the smog which it is feared might spoil our view of tomorrow’s eclipse – fingers crossed it will clear! Cloud cover may also obscure the event as it did in 1715 for John Keill at Oxford and for a number of other observers in our database:

Mr Brotherton: 15th March 1858 – cloudy, eclipse not visible, darkness from 1 to 2 (Worcestershire Record Office, 705/453). *This was only a partial eclipse.

You can check the forecast in your area using the Met Office’s special map. And do also look out for the ‘Supermoon’ this evening when the Earth and the Moon will be as close together as they can be. So, the 2015 Spring Equinox eclipse will be a ‘supermoon eclipse’.

Modern hazards

Tomorrow’s solar eclipse presents a significant challenge to the UK’s electricity network as power demand is expected to fall (as people stop their usual activities to observe the phenomena) and then surge (once the eclipse has passed). As the moon blocks out the sun’s light the electricity generated by solar panels will also drop significantly.

Health experts have also warned of the risks to the eye if people are tempted to try to capture the eclipse through ‘selfies’.

Further reading

Posted in Archive visitsWeather extremesweather observers