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June 23, 2024

Europeans gather to watch a solar eclipse

By SARI AMIEL | March 26, 2015

On Friday, a solar eclipse darkened the skies of the North Atlantic for four hours, prompting dramatic photographs for some and disappointment for others in the many countries where cloudy skies unexpectedly blocked the view.

A total solar eclipse, in which the moon moves between the Earth and the sun, occurred above parts of the North Atlantic Ocean. Spectators in the Faroe Islands and Svalbard were supposed to have views of this total solar eclipse, but the view was blocked by clouds in the Faroe Islands.

In Europe, northern Asia and northern Africa, some people were able to witness a partial eclipse, where the moon only partly blocked out the sun, but clouds obscured the view of the eclipse in many locations, including Paris and London.

Despite the widespread lack of visibility, Friday’s eclipse was unique in that it took place over a heavily populated area, providing many people with the opportunity to see it.

“For some eclipses, you have to be in the middle of the ocean to see it, or it will only cast a shadow on the east of Russia,” astronomer Edward Bloomer, of the Royal Observatory in England, told The New York Times. “This one was great, as so many people on the earth could see it.”

The recent solar eclipse was the largest that Europe has seen in the past 15 years, and Europeans will not be able to see another solar eclipse until 2026.

The eclipse was also unusual because it coincided with the presence of a supermoon and with the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. Supermoons occur when the moon’s orbit brings the moon closer to Earth than usual, causing the moon to appear larger and brighter.

The eclipse prompted concerns that Europe would face widespread power outages, given that the continent’s energy needs are partially met by photovoltaic solar power. Solar power comprises seven percent of the energy used by Germany, one country where the solar eclipse was seen.

Officials spent months planning for the solar eclipse, but the initial drop in the production of solar energy was lower than predicted. During the eclipse, European power systems lost 17 gigawatts of energy out of the 89 gigawatts of total output, but they avoided any disastrous shortages. When the moon blocked the sun over Europe, power systems used back-up sources of energy, such as stored hydroelectricity, wind energy, fossil fuels or geothermal energy, in order to ensure that energy supply would meet the demand.

Although European power systems handled this solar eclipse well, future eclipses might be more disruptive in a world that is powered more by solar energy.

This past weekend, high tides formed on the coasts of the U.K. and France due to the solar eclipse. The gravitational pull of the moon is the main force that influences tides on Earth with the sun exerting a smaller, secondary effect. During a solar eclipse, the alignment of the sun and moon causes their gravitational pulls to combine, resulting in large tides on Earth. These supertides tend to happen during the month of March and are especially high every 18 years.

People who were watching the solar eclipse were told to wear special glasses that would protect their eyes. It is actually safe to directly watch a total solar eclipse — the danger comes when people don’t look away as the moon begins moving away from the sun. In a dark environment, pupils dilate in order to let more light into the eyes. Right after a total solar eclipse, when people suddenly find themselves staring at the sun, the sun’s light can be more damaging to the retina than usual because the eyes have not readjusted.

Solar eclipses don’t only affect humans; many animals adjust their behaviors when they notice the sky darkening before an eclipse. Several nocturnal species begin to hunt during eclipses, the way they do after the sun sets. Many birds stop singing while an eclipse is taking place and sing more, the way they typically do at dawn, after the eclipse ends.

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