Thursday, July 11, 2019

This Year's Eclipse (and Next Year's?)

Chilean eclipse-chasers filled the beach at Caleta Los Hornos (photo by Marializ Maldonado)
I couldn’t attend last week’s solar eclipse in Chile but, indirectly at least, I had a sort of presence. When my longtime friend Marializ Maldonado, at whose house I often stay when in Santiago, asked to borrow my car to drive north to the Coquimbo region, I immediately said yes, and she was able to view the event at the beachside locale of Caleta Los Hornos, north of the city of La Serena.
In the minutes before totality, at Caleta Los Hornos (photo by Marializ Maldonado)
Partly, this was a favor to a friend, but it was also a favor to me, as it’s best not to leave a car unused for months, as I do by necessity in the outskirts of Santiago. Marializ also often does me the favor of paying my highway tolls as, for some incomprehensible reason, Chile’s online payment system does not want to accept my US credit cards (though I use them regularly when I visit Chile).
The Coquimbo region is home to major international observatories such as Cerro Tololo (CTIO), part of the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Marializ arrived just five minutes before totality, which she described as “two intense and beautiful minutes” on the Pacific shoreline. The most vivid account I’ve read, though, came from the New York Times, whose “52 Places” columnist Sebastian Modak saw the event from the European Southern Observatory at La Silla—also pointing out that this was only the third eclipse to pass over a major international observatory in the last 50 years.

The eclipse turned out to be an economic bonanza for the region. According to the local daily El Observatodo, the event attracted more than 300,000 people over five days, and those visitors spent more than US$82 million. Many if not most arrived by private car, presumably from Santiago as Marializ did, but there were also numerous foreign eclipse-chasers. Plenty of people also witnessed it from the Argentine side of the border, though cloud cover obscured things in Buenos Aires.
Path of next year's eclipse
There's no guarantee of clear weather as next year's eclipse passes over Volcán Villarrica.
For Chileans and others who missed this year’s eclipse, there’ll be another chance soon enough. On December 14th of 2020, the moon will once again block the sun in the southern lakes resort district around Lago Villarrica and the town of Pucón, but that area’s marine West Coast climate—resembling Seattle’s—mean that clear skies are no sure thing. A few years ago, some friends and I planned to do a small plane flyover of Volcán Villarrica’s steaming crater but, after several days of fine clear weather, the clouds moved in the next morning and made the flight impossible. Across the Andes, where Argentina’s Patagonian steppe usually has clear skies, could be a better option.
Next year, the rain-shadow steppes of Argentina's Neuquén province might be a better place to observe totality.

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