Tue, Nov 25, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Umbraphiles bask in an Antarctic eclipse


Antarctica New Zealand field training officer Paul Rogers, left, and Land Information New Zealand scientist Graeme Blick view the partial solar eclipse yesterday from pressure ridges in the sea ice near Scott Base in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.


It was visible for barely two minutes, but a bunch of enthusiastic umbraphiles were prepared to pay almost US$9,000 to catch a glimpse of that rarest of solar wonders -- a total eclipse situated above the Antarctic.

One young woman ran 3km across frozen sea ice while some of her colleagues took to skis for the best view of a phenomenon that left the penguins totally unimpressed.

A shipload of tourists watched from the armchair comfort of a cruise ship at anchor off Russia's Antarctic base of Mirny.

But it was a group of 300 stargazers, umbraphiles (eclipse chasers, or, more literally, lovers of shadows) and scientists in a Boeing 747 specially chartered for the round-trip from Melbourne who enjoyed the best possible view in their seats above the clouds at precisely 10:40pm GMT on Sunday.

Scientist Bob Jones, station leader at Australia's Davis Antarctic Base, made a 6km round trip across the sea ice for a good view.

"There was some high level cloud, but the view was good and we could see it clearly," he said.

"From the beginning of the eclipse it was about six degrees above the horizon and it was above the Antarctic plateau here. It rose to about 10 degrees, so it was higher in the sky than I would have thought.

"That's quite high because the sun's diameter is about half a degree, so it was actually a lot higher in the sky than I would have thought.

"At the full eclipse, or the fullest it reached here of 98.5 percent, it went darker although everything here is white -- the plateau is white, the icebergs are white and the ice is white. But it did appear to go noticeably darker.

"Viewing the sun through some exposed x-ray paper or proper glasses you could actually see the whole of the sun being covered except for a small slither when it was at its final level.

"I think the closest Antarctic station would have been Russia's Mirny base, east of where we were. And there was a Russian cruise ship, the Kapitain Klebnikov, specifically there to see it," he said.

The ship visited Davis last Thursday and left to sail to Mirny and then to the spot in the ocean from which it viewed the eclipse.

Jones, a veterinary pathologist from Bendigo in Victoria, said he and colleagues travelled across the ice to see what effect the eclipse had on nesting penguins.

"But there was no discernible change in them; they didn't show any degree of agitation or worry or anything," he said.

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