Sunday, August 20, 2017

Solar Eclipse 1979

In early 1979 I was finishing my graduate degree at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and preparing for the move to Ottawa later in the summer. Just my luck that a total solar eclipse was about to make a visit. This was a rare opportunity since no travel was required; few have the pleasure of seeing this phenomenon in their lifetimes unless one travels to the path of totality. One came close in 1963 when I was very young and impressionable. Throughout my youth I looked forward with great anticipation to the real deal in 1979.

As is usual for February in VE4 the weather was virtually guaranteed to be cold and clear. That held true for the morning of February 26. Although I had the desire to drive north to get a longer view of totality, or even just stay home for the day in the north district of the city, I decided that an eclipse extension of 15 or 20 seconds wasn't worth it. As per routine I drove to the university campus in the south of the city where totality would be just shy of 2 minutes duration. I had an enormous workload to get through if I intended to graduate.

Thoughts of radio were far from my mind. Going back to my logs from that time of my life it was pretty clear that my on air activity was extremely limited. I didn't have the time. Although I had an interest in the eclipse's impact on propagation I was infinitely more interested in witnessing the event with my eyes, not through headphones.

Word got around by mid-morning that staff were getting access to a number of building roofs for improved eclipse viewing. Students were welcome. A few friends and I joined a small group on top of one of the science buildings. The view was great even though we were only up perhaps 6 stories. There were no taller buildings, prairie trees tend to be short (leafless in February) and the landscape was flat out to the horizon in every direction.

It was also painfully cold. Few of us were dressed for an extended stay in -20° C or worse temperatures. The breeze above the rooftops increased our discomfort. At intervals each of us would duck inside to warm up. Waiting for totality is not very interesting; there's only so much I could stand of staring at a slowly encroaching shadow over the sun through the viewing filters that were passed around.

As totality approached the temperature was already noticably dropping in the dimming sunlight, already quite weak from a winter sun low in the south-southeast sky. I tried to look for the rapidly moving shadow edge sweeping over the prairie from the west but failed to see anything very distinct. Then it was dark and all eyes turned toward the main event. For a moment I saw Baily's Beads.

The next thing I noticed was the expansive corona. This was the time of a solar maximum, and historically quite a fairly strong one. The corona expands under these conditions. At about the same time everyone noticed and pointed at a large arcing prominence on the upper left limb. It was quite spectacular. This linked photo shows a reddish glow but not the prominence. Possible the photo was taken later during totality when, as I recall, the encroaching moon blocked the prominence from view. Also visible was a smaller prominence and other evidence of high solar activity.

Stars were visible though not as many as I'd expected. The sky was as dark as twilight and grew darker then lighter again as totality progressed. Then it was over. After a couple of minutes the crowd began to disperse. The repeat viewing of the the partial eclipse in reverse couldn't keep an audience in that bitter weather.

Over the following weeks I heard reports of hams experiencing some interesting low band conditions with paths crossing and along the path of totality. Although the internet existed and I had even used it a few times it played no role in connecting hams or distributing news of operations during the eclipse.

I have never travelled to view a solar eclipse and I won't be for this one either. If I have the time I will turn on the rig and listen on the low bands. It's unlikely that I'll bother to transmit. I will only be a spectator. For those of you in the US lucky enough to experience totality on Monday be sure to get outside and away from the shack for at least the several minutes of the main event. It's very worthwhile.

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