Solar eclipse 2012: All systems go for witnessing rare 'ring of fire'

A rare annular eclipse, where a ‘ring of fire’ outlines the moon as it crosses the sun, will greet US viewers Sunday evening. Residents of the US West will have a good shot at seeing the full fire ring.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
The sun is seen partially blocked by the moon through ceilings of ancient buildings during a solar eclipse in central China in 2010.

The last time an annular solar eclipse hovered above Los Angeles, in 1992, a “dumb cloud,” as one young skygazer said at the time, ruined the show. On Sunday, Angelenos will get another, hopefully much better, shot at witnessing at least part of a phenomenon where the face of the moon can’t quite block the sun, creating either a partial or complete halo in the sky.

Aside from some localized fog and cloud banks, weather forecasters are calling for mostly clear skies for a paintbrush stroke of the US that runs from Oregon to northern Texas, where locals will be able to see the full ring of fire as it appears on the US continental shelf for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Los Angeles is slightly south of the zone, meaning residents will instead see a crescent sun  – which is nothing to sneeze at, either.)

“Right now, it appears the majority of the territory in the zone of the annular eclipse … will be in good shape with two possible exceptions,” writes the Weather Channel’s Chris Dolce. “The tail end of a frontal boundary and an upslope wind flow could bring some isolated thunderstorms and cloud cover to eastern New Mexico and western Texas. Elsewhere, an approaching frontal system off the Northwest coast is likely to bring extensive cloud cover to southwest Oregon and far northwest California.”

Hundreds of national parks and astronomy enthusiasts are planning viewing parties across the region, with Texas authorities suggesting those who want to see the full effect head to the northern part of the state, like Lubbock or even up into Albuquerque, in New Mexico, where the viewing is likely to be prime.

Some of the best specific places to witness the eclipse include Utah’s Zion National Park, California’s Lake Tahoe region, Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and the pueblos of northern New Mexico.

(Remember, don’t look at the sun directly through anything less than No. 14 arc-welders glasses. Use projection devices instead, such as a hole pricked in a sheet of printer paper.)

Californians, for their part, are being cautioned that inland areas may be better than beaches for watching the eclipse, since the regular gray clouds that roll in from the Pacific in the evening can arrive as early as 5 p.m. Depending on location,  the eclipse will begin around 5:24 p.m. local time in California, peak at 6:38, with the full sun revealed again at 7:42 p.m., a few minutes before sunset.

Sunday’s rare annular eclipse is part of what’s become an astronomically active spring in the US, where excited skywatchers have in recent weeks bore witness to meteor showers and a “super moon.”

The next major solar eclipse in the US won’t come until August 21, 2017, although Australia and parts of the South Pacific will see one later this year, on Nov. 17.

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