WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Moss: Shadow bands and sudden dusk

Posted July 26

We’re less than four weeks away now from the big total solar eclipse of 2017. Looking forward to an attempt to see the upcoming eclipse also brings back memories of others from the past.

I don’t have an exact count of the partial solar eclipses I’ve observed over the years, probably two or three. Those were interesting in the sense of picking up a little on the modest dimming of the sunlight that occurs, and maybe more so in seeing the little images of the moon covering part of the sun that are created by the sun shining through trees onto the ground, parking lots or sidewalks, where the tiny gaps between leaves create a pinhole camera effect.

However, all of these partial eclipses pale in my memory in comparison to being lucky enough to (1) live right in the totality path of, and (2) have great weather conditions for, the total solar eclipse that crossed a strip of Mexico and the southeastern U.S. on March 7, 1970 (see the three maps here for the path traced out by the moon’s shadow that day).

March 1970 eclipse path close

Until Aug. 21 of this year, this was the last total eclipse of the sun that had a path cross part of our state. At the time, I was a sixth grader at Benvenue school in Rocky Mount and lived not far from Wesleyan College on the north side of town. While I wouldn’t pretend to recall every detail of the day, I have a vivid memory of the kids and parents from around our little cluster of 8 or 9 homes gathered on the front corner of our yard (at the corner of Fenner and Greyson Roads), since that’s where we had the best view toward the part of the southern sky the sun occupied as the moon covered it up.

We were fortunate to have a crisp late winter/early spring Saturday afternoon, with deep blue skies and only an odd cloud or two that never really threatened to obscure the event. I still remember the eerie sense that came with the close approach of totality. Until then, there wasn’t much to distinguish the eclipse from just a partly cloudy day, but as the sun became mostly covered and almost total, the sky rapidly turned a notably deeper blue and some bright stars and planets became weakly visible.

March 1970 eclipse path wide

One of the most striking things I remember, though, is the appearance of “shadow bands,” streaks of light and dark that came rushing toward us across the ground as far as we could see, even though the sky was mostly clear. They are a bit like a giant version of the bands of light and dark you see at the bottom of a pool on a sunny day when the water’s surface is disturbed.

March 1970 total eclipse full path

Shortly after, we were in the brief minutes of totality, with the sky a deep twilight blue, a number of stars visible, and a great view of the black hole in the sky that had been the sun, surrounded by its bright, silvery corona. It wasn’t long (enough!) until the flash of the second “diamond ring effect” as the moon first began to uncover the sun, and a another brief rush of shadow bands brought the main event to a close.

I wasn’t sure I’d ever see another one, and of course I still can’t be certain until Aug. 21 (over 47 years later) whether I will be lucky or not with the timing of summertime clouds, haze or storms when this one occurs, but it will take a lot to top the scene I still have in my mind from that March day so long ago. Anyone else here remember seeing that one?

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