Thousands Enraptured by Solar Eclipse

ReutersPeople watching an eclipse of the sun on a beach some 300 kilometers from Barnaul in the Altai region on Friday.
An enormous swath of western Siberia was submerged in darkness Friday afternoon as the moon completely blocked the sun, enrapturing huge crowds of Russians and foreign tourists.

The peak of the eclipse occurred in Novosibirsk, Russia's third-largest city.

There, forecasts of cloudy skies proved wrong, and tens of thousands of people who had flocked to the center of town were able to observe the rare total eclipse of the sun — which lasted two minutes, 23 seconds — in its full beauty.

All gazed in wonder as an eerie silence descended on the city and gushes of unusually strong wind tore through the crowd of sky-watchers. Birds stopped chirping, and the temperature suddenly dropped.

Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
A woman watching the moon partly covering the sun Friday in St. Petersburg.
Lucas Heinrich, a physics student from Berlin who traveled to Novosibirsk with classmates, described the eclipse as "unbelievable."

"It became cold and dark, and suddenly it was light again. I am very happy — it was worth the trip," Heinrich said.

NTV television reported that more than 10,000 foreign tourists arrived in Novosibirsk, the largest city in the eclipse's path, to watch.

The eclipse began in Arctic Canada and passed through Greenland, western Siberia and Mongolia before ending in China, where some saw it as a dark omen ahead of the start of the Olympic Games in Beijing this week.

Solar eclipses, history and science

  • A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves between the sun and the Earth, blocking out the sun from the areas in the moon's shadow. Without the sun's light, the sky darkens enough for stars to be seen and the corona makes a spectacular halo around the moon.
  • The first datable record of a solar eclipse was in 753 BC in Assyria, but earlier notations, among them Chinese diviners' queries on oracle bones from 1,300 to 1,100 BC, clearly refer to eclipses.
  • From 720 to 480 BC, astronomers in the state of Lu (now China's Shandong Province) recorded eclipses that can be reliably dated. By the first millennium AD, Chinese imperial astronomers could predict eclipses with an accuracy of within 15 minutes.
  • Ancient Chinese eclipse records can be used to calculate the slowing of the earth's rotation, due to the braking action of the moon.
  • A solar eclipse in 1919 helped confirm Einstein's theory of general relativity.
  • Eclipses are also scientifically interesting because they allow a rare glimpse of the cooler corona, glowing gases near the sun's surface and solar flares, which are normally not visible because of the brightness of the sun.
  • The surface of the sun is relatively quiet at the moment, with fewer sunspots than expected.
  • The next solar eclipse will occur on July 22, 2009, and could be viewed by hundreds of millions of people as it crosses straight through India and northern Bangladesh, then runs along the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Shanghai.
— Reuters
In Novosibirsk, the airport announced that it turned on nighttime landing lights during the total and partial darkness, which lasted more than two hours.

At the city zoo, polar bears and white tigers suddenly lay down to sleep. A snow leopard grew restless and ran around its cage until the sun reappeared.

Cloudy weather in other parts of Western Siberia prevented many people from enjoying the spectacle.

Viewers were repeatedly warned to prevent eye injuries by wearing protective glasses, which sold throughout Novosibirsk for 50 rubles ($2).

In Moscow, half the sun was blocked, but cloud cover prevented Muscovites from viewing the partial eclipse.

In St. Petersburg, people shouted "Look! Look!" and pointed above as the sun's outer corona appeared in the sky.

"You just feel part of nature. … This is so rare," said Lev, a software specialist in St. Petersburg. Many used special sunglasses, computer disks and even beer bottles to watch it.

In the remote Siberian settlement of Berezovaya Katun, near Russia's border with China, a large crowd of tourists, including some from France and Mongolia, clapped and cheered as organizers released thousands of balloons into the darkened sky.

"It is quite eerie for any thinking person to watch how everything turns into darkness in broad daylight," the Kremlin's top medical adviser, Gennady Onishchenko, told Vesti-24 channel.

People have been recording solar eclipses for perhaps 4,000 years, and they typically inspire a combination of dread, fascination and awe.

According to NASA, the next total eclipse will occur July 22, 2009, starting in India and moving across Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, China and over the Pacific Ocean.

(AP, Reuters)