Real quick, with a show of hands, who hasn’t skied some untracked freshies yet? Just as I suspected, nearly all of you have taken advantage of this sloppy-wet slap of Pacific moisture that has left huge snow deposits at the higher elevations. The satellites showed a classic pineapple express: Mother Nature set-up her hydraulic cannon near Hawaii and just blasted central California. Despite the shifty temps at lake level, the added snow pack on our backyard peaks was not the only early holiday gift to be thankful for this December.
At around 10:30 pm on Monday the 20th, the earth began to pass between the sun and the moon working towards a total lunar eclipse which displayed a visually stunning, transformative cycle. Although lunar eclipses are not uncommon (there have been three others in the last ten years), this particular one was special for several reasons.
First off, lets put this eclipse into a regional context. There we were on the tail-end of a monster winter storm that obscured the sun by day and blotted out the moon and stars at night. All day on the 20th I was skiing in a snow globe, happy as can be, and hoping for another shake-up that night. Then comes the knowledge of this celestial event. This put me in the precarious position of actually wanting the storm to break just so I could get a peak at what’s happening beyond the confines of planet earth.
Having made up my mind about what I wanted the weather to do that night, I went out to see if the clouds were going to cooperate. To my amazement, I looked up and saw the full moon shining crisply on clear black skys. All right!, I thought. Yet, with a few hours still remaining before the overture would begin, I tried to reign in my anticipation.
As a means to kill some time I started reading up on eclipses at NASA’s website. I didn’t know how long the event would last and was delighted to find out that it would carry on for over three hours. That meant that the eclipse would begin on the eve of the solstice and end on the solstice itself.
I know that might not sound that exciting, so let me try and put it another way. Right when the northern hemisphere of planet earth is leaning as far as possible away from the suns warm embrace, the moon has come to the fullest point in its cycle. Just at that moment, the sun, the earth and the moon line-up in such a way that the earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the surface of the moon. Pretty cool, right?
The next obvious question that came to mind was: how common is a winter solstice eclipse? Well, in a NASA press release, Geoff Chester of the US Naval Observatory stated that this alignment has only occurred one other time since the year 1 AD. That’s as far back as any one I could find has looked. The most recent event was in 1638. “Fortunately we won’t have to wait 372 years for the next one” says Chester. “That will be on 2094 DEC 21.” Make a note of it people – at least for the kids…
Just after 10:30pm the earth’s shadow bit into the lower portion of the moon. It was just a greasy-looking smudge at first, but its growth was noticeable. Before long, the watery star had waned as a dark radius ate halfway through and eventually consumed the luminescent orb. Far from detracting from the display, the passage of wispy clouds added undulating halos, refractions and other distortions of light for the viewer to enjoy. When the eclipse became complete, a Martian-red cloak was cast over our satellite presenting an unfamiliar lunar hue. Half the cycle was complete. The process would now repeat itself in reverse.
That was enough for me. I went to bed that night knowing that I’d seen a rarity. Not just an eclipse, but a culmination of large scale natural displays that demanded attention and awe. The natural world is always out there at the edge of human development, but this week it came knocking at the front door.