Horizontal Eclipse

Apologies for the lateness of this post, I went down with flu later on in the evening of this day and didn’t fully recover until well into the New Year!

The alarm went off at 5AM and I awoke to full moonlight streaming through the bedroom window; “fantastic”, I thought – and more than I dared hope for after the past 3 weeks of snow! It was the morning of 21 December 2010 and a very special morning because, not only was it the day of the solstice but also, a total lunar eclipse was due to happen.  Such combinations of events are rare indeed; the last time a lunar eclipse occurred on the winter solstice was 21 December 1638 – over 400 years ago! I had planned for the event without much hope of seeing it, for a number of reasons. Firstly, winter here in Shetland can bring some very changeable weather and it’s very difficult to forecast clear skies (or any kind of skies) with certainty. Secondly, the eclipse was due to occur as the moon set – this fact meant that cloud, haze or fog on the horizon was a possibility, even if the rest of the sky were to be clear. Thirdly, further snow overnight could have restricted my ability to travel to my favoured location and restricted how much of the event I could have seen because I needed to go a reasonable distance to get an uninterrupted view to the west/ north-west, where the moon would be. On the positive side, Shetland had the potential to offer some of the best views in the UK. This is because its northerly location means that sunrise is later here than further south meaning darker views of the moon that could be lost in daylight much sooner elsewhere. In fact, the moon wasn’t due to set here until just about the end of totality, after sunrise at just after 9AM. A lunar eclipse that occurs when the sun is above the horizon is known as a horizontal eclipse, though sunrise would be obscured from my view by a low hill.

There had been a further slight fall overnight and I considered my options carefully since I only have a two-wheel drive car and the roads wouldn’t have been cleared by the time I needed to be at my proposed vantage point. I decided to set out and see how far I got, laden down with photo gear, as usual. I travelled to Trondra, in some places doing no more than 20 mph but I made it and looked for a place to stop. I needed to park at my viewing site so I had the car as a refuge from the cold, but that meant pulling onto the verge, something I hadn’t previously thought about. The verge was about a foot deep in snow but I managed to pull off into a previous vehicle’s tracks but as soon as I stopped I realised I wouldn’t get out again without a struggle – more of that later.

Despite my early start it was 6:30AM when I parked, the eclipse was due to start in 2 minutes! The sky was still clear and the moon was stunningly bright against a black sky. I set up as quickly as I could but I couldn’t take my first photo until 6:35AM, by which time the earth’s shadow had taken a noticeable “bite” out of the Moon. It was cold and the snow crunched underfoot but all the activity of setting up, marvelling at the event and taking photos kept my mind off the cold for quite a while. I took a series of photos and when the shadow reached part way across the Moon and the redness started to appear I adjusted the exposure and it began to clearly show on the LCD screen. I took a few photos of the general scene showing the increasingly red Moon hanging in the sky over a very cold and blue pre-dawn landscape. I was most impressed to catch a red glow on the water below the partially eclipsed Moon – though this faded as the Moon dimmed and daylight began to approach.

Whilst it was still dark a big white van pulled up alongside, the driver concerned for my wellbeing. Turned out it was my friend Frank and we chatted for a few moments about what was going on. In passing I said I would have great difficulty getting off the road verge; no worries he said, take this shovel and get it back to me later – I was so glad he did because in my excitement earlier I’d forgotten mine. Amazing – where else could this happen?

Strangely, I had considerable difficulty getting a sharp focus, but the reason became apparent later and shouldn’t have caught me out. The lenses were fogging slightly, even though they were cooled by this time. The reason for this became apparent when I was packing up and I noticed hoar frost had formed on the barrel of the telephoto lens – it’s metal, whereas the other lens I was using is plastic. Because it was dark until shortly before I packed up, I didn’t see the ice forming! I learned a salutary lesson there and shall remember to use a cover for the lens and camera – the irony is that I had one sat in the camera bag!

Totality occurred at about 7:40AM and the Moon was still readily visible at this time, though by now the sky was dark blue with approaching dawn. I continued to take photos, though by this time I was getting cold and had to resort to sitting in the car with the engine running to keep warm! I had hoped to continue taking photos of the Moon until it set and the continuing clear skies led me to think that might be possible. However, by mid-totality (about 8:15AM) the rising sun and increasing daylight overwhelmed the Moon, which was very dim and barely visible. I managed photos until just before mid-totality but by 8:15AM I could no longer find it in the viewfinder and could only just make it out with my eyes.

I decided to pack up and it was at this point I noticed the frost on my lens. I dried it off and packed the camera and lens combination in an airtight plastic bag to prevent condensation as it warmed up. Getting out of the deep snow on the road verge was a challenge and I was really grateful for the shovel! I dug channels to the road but, even so, I had to rock the car back and forth to get enough momentum to get out. I also had to deepen my channels a bit more but eventually got out!

A short while later, I photographed the sunrise (though it had been up for nearly half an hour by then and, in the early afternoon, a fantastic sunset again over Trondra. That time there were hordes of snappers out. Quite an achievement to capture both sunrise and sunset on the same day in midwinter in Shetland, even more amazing on the same day as a lunar eclipse!

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One Response to “Horizontal Eclipse”

  1. fergus murray Says:

    Hi Austin Like the photos. Where do you get the time and energy to do this stuff? Surfing the net to look at this year’s up helly aaaaaahhhhh photos and came across your site. Bet your oot and aboot in the freezing cald snapping away at the bearded heathons setting fire to things and singing strange songs in the dark. Starting to get the bug for photography myself although no where near your standard but its good to be creative when you work for da Cooncil. Hope to head north to Shetland for a few days in the summer so maybe we could have a couple of beers or so. Cheers and best wishes to everyone. Fergus

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