Solar eclipse is a star spectacle in the International Year of Light

24 March 2015

The solar eclipse on 20 March sent eclipse enthusiasts on a chase to the far north, encouraged some citizen science, and inspired a host of activities around the UK and Ireland.

Solar eclipse
Credit: Ivar Marthinusen

The eclipse was partial in the UK and Ireland, while within a 100-mile wide path across part of the planet, the Sun’s sphere was completely obscured by the Moon, a phenomenon known as totality. Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, and the Faroe Islands were the only places on Earth where totality could be observed from land.

Eclipses provide astronomers with an opportunity to make observations that are normally hidden or outshone by the Sun’s light. This eclipse, which happened during the International Year of Light (IYOL) also proved an opportunity to engage the public in the science behind the unusual event.

A number of eclipse-viewing parties took place across the UK to enable people to observe the phenomenon safely and to learn more about astronomy, including a highly popular event hosted from the steps of the Cardiff Museum by the IOP in Wales, and staff from Cardiff University’s physics department and the National Museum of Wales. The eclipse viewing attracted far bigger crowds than had been expected, with people queuing around the block to try out solar glasses, solar telescopes and a variety of pinhole projectors.

There was also a nationwide live weather experiment organised by scientists at Reading University, who asked the public to send in their observations of the changes in weather that occurred during the eclipse.

The Cardiff viewing was visited by the BBC’s Stargazing Live television programme as it reported from several locations around the UK. The programme also had a team at the village of Eiði in the Faroe Islands, where cloudy skies sadly veiled the view of the eclipsed sun, though at one site in the islands a small group reported that the clouds had parted for a few seconds during totality. The Faroes Islands (population almost 50,000) welcomed around 8000 visitors at the time of the eclipse.

In Svalbard, however, the view was clear, as the IOP’s former Schools Lecturer Melanie Windridge reports in her blog describing the spectacular sight of the eclipse in the high Arctic (pictured). She has written a series of four posts about her expedition, which begin on the IOP’s blog and continue on the website for IYOL in the UK.

Beth Taylor, chair of the UK national committee for IYOL on behalf of the IOP, said: “2015 is the International Year of Light and what a fantastic opportunity to reflect on the importance of light during this rare event. I hope it has inspired people to think about how vital light really is and support IYOL's commitment to champion solar lighting in the developing world.”

Prof. John Dudley, chair of the IYOL steering committee, said: “The aim of IYOL is to raise awareness of the importance of light and light-based technologies for sustainable development, and let’s view the 20 March eclipse as nature playing its own part in reminding us of just how important light is to us all. An eclipse reminds us of just how central our sun is to our planet – it is sunlight that is the fundamental source of energy that drives life, and solar energy is the natural, sustainable energy solution for tomorrow.”

For more about the science and history of this and other eclipses, visit the IOP’s Topic of the Moment – solar eclipses.