On Monday, there will be a total solar eclipse in the United States. It is being called the American Eclipse because it will be viewable only in the United States. Weather permitting, it will be seen from coast to coast, but totality will be not visible in Minnesota.
Partial eclipses are interesting, but they are not the same magnificent experience that has fascinated humankind since the planets were first set in motion.
On Aug. 11, 1999, I was in Salzburg, Austria. I had traveled there with the Wright County Chamber Chorus on a tour to Austria and the Czech Republic.
The headlines in Austrian and German newspapers announced the day’s event: “Die totale Sonnenfinsternis” — the total eclipse of the sun. “Die Nacht am Tag” — night in day.
Salzburg is home to nearly 150,000 people, and in summer the population swells to three times that number with tourists drawn to one or both of its well-known attractions: Mozart’s birthplace and several settings featured in “The Sound of Music.” Long lines form outside the house where Mozart was born, and even longer lines form at the checkout counters in gift shops.
That day in August 1999, the streets and sidewalks of Salzburg were packed as thousands jostled for places to experience the astronomical thrill of a total solar eclipse. Austria was an especially popular place for eclipse watching since the weather forecast promised a full day of clear skies. People in other European countries were to be disappointed by clouds and rain unless they were able to make last-minute travel arrangements.
In Salzburg, the total eclipse was to begin at 12:41 p.m. Late in the morning, shops closed, outdoor lights were extinguished and all traffic lights were held on red. The moon, in its position between the Earth and the sun, would gradually block the sun, turning day into night. The gradual covering would take about 75 minutes; the phenomenon known as totality would last 2 minutes and 40 seconds. And then the gradual uncovering would last another 75 minutes.
With the shops closed and no traffic moving, people from all over the world stopped their shopping and their sightseeing and simply stood. They put on their eclipse-watching eyewear and waited for the drama to begin. They lined streets and bridges and filled parks, staying away from trees and buildings that would obstruct their view.
As the air became cooler and the sky turned a darker blue, people began to cheer. All over the city dogs began barking, reacting to the strangeness of sunlight going away on a cloudless day. Outside of urban areas, confused birds returned to their nighttime roosts. As darkness increased, fireworks lit up the sky.
At 12:41 the sun was covered by the moon. The air was chilly. A beautiful ring called the corona surrounded the sun. The crowd grew quiet during the nearly 3 minutes of totality. Surely, the onlookers were awe-struck by the complexity and predictability of the heavenly dance they were observing. Afterward, some confessed to having wondered if the sun would truly reappear. How long could life on Earth last without sunlight?
As the gradual uncovering began, onlookers cheered and laughed and hugged loved ones and strangers.
In 1999, there were no smartphones, no texting, no tweeting. Feeling like comrades because of what they had seen, they simply rejoiced together before beginning to wander away. One young man wrote later, “The light is back. The sun is born again like a baby that comes into the world.”
Back in the sunshine, the streets of Salzburg were again nearly impassable, cafes filled up for late lunches and the shops became as overcrowded as usual.
From the open doorway of the huge tourist destination called Mozartland came the sound, not of classical music, but of Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What a Wonderful World.” He sang: “I see skies of blue and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night ...”
Because of the dense population in the location of the eclipse of 1999, it was one of the most-viewed astronomical events in human history.
Somewhere on Earth there is a total eclipse about every 18 months, so they are not rare. However, an eclipse in the same narrow arc occurs only once in about every 350 years.
Marge Lundeen lives in Annandale, Minn.