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This eclipse runs a ring around the others

A rare annular solar eclipse will be visible from California on Sunday. From Los Angeles, the moon will block enough of the sun to leave a crescent; viewers farther north will see a fiery ring.

May 19, 2012|By Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times
  • The various stages of an annular solar eclipse seen over Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
The various stages of an annular solar eclipse seen over Anuradhapura,… (Eranga Jayawardena/Associated…)

A rare "ring" solar eclipse is coming to California on Sunday evening — the first of its kind to be visible from the continental United States since 1994.

From our vantage point in Southern California, the moon will block about 85% of the sun's diameter, leaving behind a crescent-shaped sliver. But those farther north will see the moon nudge its way into the center of the sun, leaving a ring of fire visible around the moon's edge. Scientists call this an annular eclipse. ("Annulus" means "ring" in Latin.)

The best view will be in the northern edge of California, coursing near Eureka, Redding, the northern suburbs of Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. In Los Angeles, the moon will begin to obscure the sun at 5:24 p.m., reach its maximum coverage at 6:38 p.m., and exit the sun's path at 7:42 p.m., just 10 minutes before sunset. Eclipse watchers should look toward the northwest horizon, preferably from an elevated vantage point.

The event won't darken the sky as much as a total eclipse, in which the moon blocks the sun completely.

"It's a much subtler effect, but it is noticeable," said Griffith Observatory director Ed Krupp. "People who are attentive notice it will be darker than you would expect for that time of day. ... If you're paying attention, you certainly will see something.

"It will feel different, perhaps eerie," he added.

According to NASA, the eclipse will begin at sunrise local time in southern China, then pass over Hong Kong, Taipei and Tokyo. After entering California, the moon's shadow will block the sun's light along a course from Reno to the Grand Canyon in Arizona to Albuquerque to Lubbock, Texas.

The weather is expected to be generally clear for most of the southwestern United States.

A partial eclipse will be viewable over a much wider area, stretching over most of eastern China, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Siberia, Alaska, Canada, Hawaii, Mexico and much of the United States except for the eastern seaboard, NASA says. But monsoons in Asia and clouds in the U.S. Northwest, South and Midwest could obscure the celestial show.

The last time Angelenos saw such an extensive solar eclipse was in 1992, but an approaching winter rainstorm ruined the view for many, including a crowd of 15,000 people at Griffith Observatory. The next time Los Angeles will see a solar eclipse this impressive will be in 2071, according to Fred Espenak, an eclipse expert with NASA.

Experts warn viewers not to look directly at the sun during the eclipse, since that could cause permanent damage to eyesight. Regular sunglasses will not protect the eyes, even if you wear more than one pair.

The simplest way to see it is to project it onto the ground in front of you by crisscrossing your fingers waffle-style to the sunlight, according to NASA.

You can also punch a nail through a piece of cardboard, and then angle it to project the sun's light onto another piece of cardboard. "When the sun goes into eclipse, you'll see a crescent," Krupp said. The smaller the hole, the sharper the image.

Another easy option is to use a hand mirror to reflect the light of the sun onto a wall or some other surface, Krupp said. NASA also suggests using binoculars to project the eclipse onto a white card.

Griffith Observatory, which is run by the city of Los Angeles, will have extra staff and telescopes outfitted with special filters on hand to help people view the eclipse for free.

But there may be clouds. The National Weather Service said there was a chance the beaches would be cloudy, with a better chance for clear skies further inland.

"Of course the mountains will probably be the best," said Stuart Seto from the National Weather Service's Oxnard office.

There's still a chance that the coast will be clear, however. Cloud conditions around 3 or 4 p.m. should be a good indication as to the cloud cover during the eclipse, Seto said.

In 1992, Krupp dressed in a tuxedo for the occasion, and was one of many who were disappointed. "The enemy in an eclipse is clouds. They are always out there skulking," he said at the time.

This year, he's not taking chances: He'll be watching the sky from Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico, which will have a full "ring" eclipse and a better chance of clear skies than the California coast.

ron.lin@latimes.com

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