In case you had not heard or read yet, on November 3 this year, the moon will block out the sun’s light causing an eclipse. This is not just any eclipse but a rare type that only happens once in several hundred years. Uganda is right on the path of this phenomenon that will start from Bermuda and end in Somalia. Gulu, Soroti, Arua and Pakwach are being sold as some of the best places in the world to view the eclipse.
What sets this place apart from the dozens that lie in the path of the eclipse? Why not large swathes of the country or the continent or even the northern region?
Turns out it is not rocket science after a chat with Benon Twinamatsiko a lecturer at the physics department at Makerere University. Thank God for this too because how would I re-explain it? Stay with me.
According to Twinamasiko, the length of time the total eclipse will be visible will diminish as it moves west. As such, people in the west who will experience the eclipse a few minutes after sunrise will be able to see the eclipse the longest. In Somalia where it will be last seen, the length of time will be much shorter just one second. A big part of the eclipse’s path is over water which means there are fewer places on land it actually crosses.
“The best viewing point would actually be right here,” says Twinamasiko pointing at a spot on the map, on the Atlantic Ocean off the West African coast. “But you can see the challenge of trying to anchor a ship in the middle of the sea for the very short experience, not to mention undependable sea weather that may cast clouds anytime,” continues the lecturer. As he explains, some of the would-be best viewing points keep getting ruled out for some reason or other.
For instance, on the basis of how long the eclipse will last and thus how long one is able to see it, there are other places on the continent that are better placed than the ones in Uganda, such as Lambarene, Makoukou, Lastoursville and Port Genteel in Gabon, Makoua in Congo Brazzaville and Mbadaka in DRC Congo. Because they are more to the west, where the eclipse is coming from, it may be visible for longer there.
“But they are located in Africa’s rainforest area which is likely to have cloud cover which will in turn affect just how visible the total eclipse is,” says Twinamasiko.
Among the sites that are dedicated to information on the impending phenomenon and where best to view it is Umanitoba.com. It has gone as far as presenting graphs of the expected cloud cover around the time of the eclipse based on yearly precipitation patterns of the region. The forecasts are grim. The area around the two Congos is expected to have heavy clouds in the month of November.
Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia make up the westernmost and last areas the eclipse will be visible before sundown. Lodwar town on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya along with Marsabit have the highest prospects of clear sky and thus a clear view. This would draw eclipse viewers in droves, but then it will only be visible for 14 seconds there.
The southern Ethiopian towns of Awasa and K’orahe will also have a view of the eclipse but the length of time it is visible will have reduced further. Information on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) website says the eclipse will be clearly visible over Somalia but for just one second before sunset. There it will be less of an experience and more of a short fleeting glimpse one may miss.
In comparison, the roughly one minute and 40 seconds the total eclipse is expected to be visible on the skies over Gulu, Arua and Pakwach seems like a really long time.
An animation on Google maps shows how the shadow cast by the moon will float across the globe.
A dark shadow slowly moves across from The Bermudas on Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic, and on to Africa. In the middle of it are two lines that chart a curve from the place the eclipse starts to its end point in Somalia.
These two lines enclose a moving black dot which is the true centre of the eclipse. Wherever the dot passes, the eclipse will be seen in its totality. “In the areas inside the lines which is a 50-mile radius, the eclipse is still quite visible. It will not be as total as the spots falling under the dark spot but people will be able to see it,” says Twinamatsiko.
In the charts provided by Umanitoba.com, the towns that fall right in the middle of the eclipse path and are expected to experience the eclipse in its totality are marked by an asterisk. They are: Makoua in Congo Brazzaville, Mbandaka in DRC and Gulu. “Gulu out of all the places in northern Uganda will have the best view because it is right on the path of the eclipse. I think the tour operators and promoters have latched onto Pakwach because of the other tourism opportunities also available after the exclipse.There is a view there, but Gulu has the best,” says Twinamasiko.
The Murchison Falls National Park is one of the tourist attractions around Pakwach. With its wide range of flora, fauna and activities, it is a no brainer why Pakwach is the buzzword. Tour companies are able to sell a whole package for when the viewing is done.
There is large area over which a shadow skims as the eclipse moves towards the west, for example, New York in USA and some chunks of west and eastern Africa. These parts do not fall in the middle of the two lines that will experience a total eclipse yet are within the area the eclipses passes through. What can they hope to see?
Twinamasiko says a partial eclipse though he cannot guarantee whether they will be much to indicate the rare phenomenon is taking place. “In case the skies are clear, people who will be looking for it may see a dark shadow blocking out part of the sun for about a minute. A dark shape on the sun may cause it to appear crescent shaped like the moon in some places. But it is a very short time and it will pass fast,” he says.
Kampala will be one of the places getting a partial view of the eclipse but Twinamasiko advises people not to expect much, saying it may be gone and most of us will miss it, especially if the day turns out to be cloudy.
Even if we do see something, it will be nothing as amazing as what those who will be able to make it to Gulu, Arua, Soroti or Pakwach will see.