Sand, Sun, and storms — but no totality

Posted by Rich Talcott
on Tuesday, November 12, 2013

For fans of odd weather or anti-crepuscular rays, it would be hard to beat the sky’s performance November 3. For fans of total solar eclipses, however, the day proved less charming.

The day started with promise at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, where partly cloudy skies ruled and the forecast looked good for our eclipse site. After breakfast, the 30-odd members of our MWT Associates, Inc. tour group traveled to a small airstrip and boarded three chartered planes for a nearly two-hour flight to Sibiloi National Park. The center line for today’s eclipse runs through the park, which lies on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana near where scientists have discovered some of the earliest human fossils.

The brownish color of the sky shows the last vestiges of the violent sandstorm that hit our eclipse site between first and second contact. // photo by Richard Talcott
With temperatures in the 90s and only scattered clouds, we sought shade while waiting for first contact, which arrived right on schedule at 4:13 p.m. But before long, our high hopes started to dim. A large storm was approaching from the north and getting closer to the Sun in the western sky. A few raindrops started to fall, but that was the least of our worries. Roughly 20 minutes after first contact, several of us noticed a wall of sand and dust heading in our direction. Photographers barely had time to cover their cameras before the storm hit, turning grains of sand into stinging projectiles. The pilots claimed it was the worst sandstorm they had ever seen in Kenya, small solace to those of us waiting for totality. The storm raged for 10 to 15 minutes before it died down.

But our troubles were not over. Once the dust settled, clouds hid the Sun. Although it wasn’t completely overcast, the chances of seeing any of the 14 seconds of totality were looking bleak. The sky below the Sun, however, put on a spectacular display of anti-crepuscular rays. These rays — shafts of light created when sunlight passes through gaps in the clouds below the Sun’s position — appeared especially sharp thanks to the dwindling light source (the solar crescent) behind the clouds.

 

Sunlight streams through small holes in the clouds shortly before totality, creating a spectacular display of anti-crepuscular rays. // photo by Evelyn Talcott
But the clouds in front of the Sun didn’t budge. The anti-crepuscular rays faded and then were extinguished for the 14 seconds of totality, only to return just as strong afterward. Totality itself was the darkest of the 11 I have witnessed. The only other visible sign of the total eclipse were pretty twilight colors above the southern horizon.

Once we were back on the planes, we climbed above the clouds and saw the eclipse’s final partial phases and a colorful sunset. The conversations on the flight to Nairobi reflected the disappointment in not seeing totality countered by the excitement of the violent sandstorm and the stunning sky just before and after the eclipse’s peak. We hoped for calmer skies prevail when we go searching for big game in the Masai Mara the next day, but more on that later.

Related blog: Into Africa

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