Nantucket And Its Eclipses

The eclipses of 1925 and 2079 bring together two very different places: New York City and Nantucket Island. Because we are familiar with major astronomical observatories being sited atop remote mountain peaks, it seems peculiar that Nantucket has so many connections with astronomy. But it does, as we have seen above.

The next connection is through eclipses. That in January 1925 was well observed from Nantucket. It happens that the next total solar eclipse visible from there is also the next one for New York City. As the Sun rises on May 1, 2079, it will be in eclipse as seen from Philadelphia or Atlantic City, but one would do better to be rather further towards the northeast. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland would be best, unless you fancy Greenland in the spring, but Long Island, Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts will do very nicely. Indeed Nantucket will be close to the central line.

Looking backwards in time, though, Nantucket provides a stark comparison with New York, at least for the past century. Ancient times indicate nothing unusual about Nantucket: total solar eclipses in 1079 and 1478, long before European settlement, and then an annular eclipse in 1831 with less than 2 percent of the Sun uncovered. Along the way there have been many deep partial eclipses (the eclipse of May 28, 1900 shown in Figure 10-1 presented Nantucket with 95 percent solar obscuration), but the fun really started with 1925.

Less than eight years later Nantucket had a near miss. On August 31, 1932, an eclipse track came down through the middle of Hudson Bay and then Quebec Province, crossed much of Vermont, New Hampshire, and the southwestern parts of Maine before skimming the Massachusetts coast. While most expeditions went northwards, some people got a good view from Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, where the Pilgrim Fathers first landed in 1620.

Nantucket was a handful of miles off the southern limit of totality in 1932. In fact, the best-selling astronomy computer program I have used for many of the calculations in this book indicates that the eclipse was total in Nantucket, which it clearly was not. That indicates some inaccuracy in the input parameters, but from the perspective of eclipse viewing the question is moot in any case. On the day in question the island happened to be covered with clouds.

Residents of Nantucket were again teased in 1959 and 1963, eclipse-wise. On October 2, 1959, there was an eclipse at sunrise in eastern Massachusetts, travelling east over the Atlantic and passing just north of Boston. About 2 percent of the Sun was uncovered as seen from Nantucket. On July 20, 1963, a partial eclipse darkened all but 6 percent of the Sun.

This was all leading up to 1970. On March 7 the track of a total solar eclipse touched down in the Pacific Ocean, crossed Mexico and its Gulf, met the United States at Tallahassee (note my earlier comments about eclipses over the Florida panhandle), and then skimmed up the Atlantic seaboard. The regions of Georgia, the Carolinas andVirginia within about 80 miles of the coast were eclipsed. At the entrance to Chesapeake Bay the track went out over the ocean, but Nantucket was in luck.

One might imagine that the island would have welcomed this as providing a tourist boom, but recall that this was only a short while after the Woodstock music festival. Proposals that a similar if smaller celebration should be staged on Nantucket to coincide with the eclipse were vetoed. Nantucket was not the only place to feel this way. The natural place to hold such a festival would have been the little town of Eclipse, Virginia, which happened to be within the track. Again the concept was rejected. The would-be festival organizers ended up taking their idea offshore, chartering a cruise liner to chase out into the Atlantic an eclipse in July 1972 that had passed over Canada. That was the first in what has become a common way of experiencing eclipses.

For a low-lying island barely more than a dozen miles wide, Nantucket did rather well, then, with regard to twentieth-century eclipses. But the law of averages must be repaid somehow. Nantucket has started the twenty-first century with a statistically freakish period in which no solar eclipses at all may be seen. In the Appendix it is shown that in every calendar year there are at least two solar eclipses of some description, and there may be up to five such events. The Sun is above the horizon for any location on Earth for just over 50 percent of the time, and the lunar shadow sweeps across almost half of a hemisphere during an eclipse (Figure 2-3). Therefore one might anticipate that each point on the Earth would witness about one solar eclipse per year, on the average, the vast majority of them being partial.

In view of that, one would imagine that it would be unlikely that any spot would pass more than four or five years without having at least a slim partial eclipse being visible. Nantucket, the island that argues with averages, is now within a sequence of 13 years with nary a solar eclipse to be peeked. After the partial eclipse on Christmas Day 2000, the island's residents must wait until November 2013 for their next chance. In the meantime they will have to console themselves with the several lunar eclipses to be enjoyed, as described in Chapter 15.

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