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Solar eclipse creates twilight zone

A near-total solar eclipse cast the UK into the twilight zone at the height of the morning rush-hour as the moon slipped in front of the sun, covering up to 97% of its face.

But while some were treated to an unforgettable experience, not to be repeated for another 11 years, the pre-eclipse excitement dimmed in many parts of the country covered in cloud.

Wales proved one of the best places to be, with the sun shining out of a clear blue sky before being reduced to a thin silvery crescent.

Other good vantage points included parts of the West Country and Midlands, and eastern Scotland around Edinburgh.

A few sky-watchers were lucky enough to chase the "total" shadow of the moon across the North Atlantic on organised eclipse trips.

They included Robin Scagell, vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA), who was on board the P&O cruise ship Oriana off the Faroe Islands

He reported the "fantastic sight" of the sun's shimmering corona atmosphere circling the dark disc of the moon and flaming orange prominences erupting into space.

In south Gloucestershire, amateur astronomer Ralph Wilkins described an "eerie" feeling as a chilly gloom descended and shadows sharpened.

Elsewhere there were reports of birds "going crazy" and flocking to trees, confused by the fading light.

Around the UK, the proportion of the sun covered by the moon increased towards the north, ranging from 84% in London to 89% in Manchester, 93% in Edinburgh and 97% in Lerwick in the Shetland Isles.

Times also varied. In overcast London, the eclipse began at 8.24am, and reached its maximum extent at 9.31am. For observers in Edinburgh, it started at 8.30am and peaked at 9.35am.

The last solar eclipse of such significance occurred on August 11 1999, and was "total" - with 100% of the sun covered - when seen from Cornwall.

Another "deep" partial eclipse visible in the UK will not occur until August 12 2026, and the next total eclipse not until September 2090.

Mr Wilkins, from the London-based Baker Street Irregular Astronomers, who joined a group of sky-watchers outside a school in the village of Hambrook, south Gloucestershire, said: "The sky started clearing just after first contact and we were able to watch the moon glide in front of the sun.

"It was a unique experience - eerie is the right word for it. The shadows started to sharpen and everything began to develop this yellowish hue.

"Whenever there's a solar eclipse in the UK you tend to get cloud, so to be treated to clear skies was really wonderful. It really was beautiful. We were all thrilled."

His experience was repeated in sunny Edinburgh where around 200 people gathered outside the Scottish Parliament to watch the eclipse.

Meanwhile, at the Clifton Observatory in Bristol, students Greg Robertson, 19, and Sam Firminger, 20, celebrated with champagne and visitors took turns to peer through a giant pinhole camera.

Standing stones added to the atmosphere at Stonehenge and on the Isle of Lewis, with clouds parting at both locations in time to allow people to witness the event.

More than 1,000 eclipse-watchers gathered on the steps of the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, where they were handed special safety glasses.

It was a similar scene at Swansea's National Waterfront Museum.

Brian Stokes, chairman of the Swansea Astronomical Society, said: "Looking through a telescope, it was magnificant.

"The Swansea promenade was packed with people; they were lined all the way along."

Other events took pace in Aberystwyth and the Brecon Beacons.

Also putting Wales on the map, Welsh-born singer Bonnie Tyler started trending worldwide on Twitter with her 1983 power ballad, Total Eclipse Of The Heart.

People in other parts of the country shrouded in cloud were left nursing disappointment.

Around 600 people gathered in London's Regent's Park for an event organised jointly by the Royal Astronomical Society and Baker Street Irregular Astronomers, only to be thwarted by the weather.

Dr Robert Massey, deputy executive secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, who was with them, said: "We enjoyed it despite the cloud. There was a nice atmosphere and a shared experience. It got eerily dark and cold for a while, which was quite strange."

Simon Bennett, who co-founded the Baker Street group, said: "We've been unlucky, but that is what astronomy is - you can't guarantee anything."

Solar eclipses occur when the Earth, moon and sun are precisely aligned so that the moon's shadow touches the Earth's surface.

During the eclipse, the moon's shadow raced across the Earth from west to east at up to 2,000mph.

The eclipse produced a 100-mile-wide "totality" shadow path which sped over the North Atlantic and covered just two land masses, the Faroe Islands between Scotland and Iceland, and the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

Only observers along this path were able to witness the glory of a total eclipse, when the sun is completely covered and day turns into night.

Speaking from the Oriana, Mr Scagell described how rain and cloud unexpectedly gave way to virtually clear skies just in time for the total eclipse.

He said: "We were very lucky indeed. There was rain and cloud for some of the morning coming and going, and just a few minutes before totality a lot of the cloud cleared away and we saw the total phase.

"Everyone was delighted - we had a beautiful view. The entire ship was treated to a fantastic sight.

"We saw the corona, the diamond ring caused by the last bit of the sun at the edge of the eclipse, and prominences - eruptions of hydrogen from the surface of the sun."

The eclipse also revealed the famous "Baily's beads", dazzling pearls at the edge of the darkened disc caused by sunlight filtering through the moon's mountains, craters and valleys.

"It was a wonderful experience and as an added bonus we're hoping to see the Northern Lights as well," said Mr Scagell.

Earlier Mr Scagell and other experts warned of the dangers of looking directly at the sun.

He said: "A partial eclipse is more risky by far than a total eclipse because people don't realise that even looking at a thin sliver of sun is dangerous ... It's absolutely true that there is a serious risk to people's eyesight."

Public Health England said that after the 1999 eclipse around 70 people suffered from vision loss, half of them reporting issues within 48 hours of the event.

Despite the cloud, the eclipse was expected to have a significant impact on the National Grid, with a predicted loss of 850 megawatts of solar power from the electricity supply network.

But experts estimated the effect to be more than offset by the large numbers of people leaving their homes to witness the spectacle.

Jeremy Caplin, forecasting manager at National Grid, said: "This loss of solar is entirely manageable and will be largely offset by demand suppression."

The effect on solar power was likely to be greater in other parts of Europe which are more dependent on the sun for electricity generation.

Solar panels feed large amounts of electricity into the power grids of Germany, Italy and France. In the summer, up to 40% of Germany's energy comes from its solar farms.

The last European eclipse occurred before the proliferation of solar power, leaving experts in the dark over what would actually happen.

Scientists hope the 2015 eclipse will help them test their models of how solar farms are likely to behave when they lose energy from the sun.

Professor Alessandro Abate, from Oxford University's Department of Computer Science, said: "This eclipse is a rare opportunity to challenge in a worst-case scenario the mathematical models we are developing to predict the behaviour of large populations of solar panels."

Other researchers at the University of Reading will be studying reports from an army of "citizen scientists" recruited to help them investigate eclipse weather - changes in the atmosphere caused by the sun's rays being temporarily blocked out by the moon .

There are anecdotal reports of an "eclipse wind" - a breeze that appears as a solar eclipse reaches its peak - and breaks in the cloud appearing as the atmosphere cools.

Professor Giles Harrison, head of the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, who is leading the National Eclipse Weather Experiment (Newex), said: "We are effectively turning the skies of Britain into a giant weather lab, giving us a rare chance to see what happens when you 'turn down the sun'."

Dr Massey said a total eclipse provided a rare opportunity for scientists to study the corona.

"There is research you can do looking at the innermost bits of the sun's atmosphere, just above the brightest visible surface," he said. "It's also interesting to see what an eclipse does to the Earth's atmosphere, which is not well understood."

One person was treated in hospital for injuries sustained during the eclipse.

A spokeswoman for Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust said the person attended A&E at Scunthorpe General Hospital earlier.

She said: " One person had to be treated in the accident and emergency department at Scunthorpe General Hospital earlier today due to injuries sustained during the partial eclipse of the sun."

There were no further details available about what injuries were sustained or their severity.


From Belfast Telegraph