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Solar eclipse: Seeing was believing

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Each day brings a new assessment of the terrible damage from last weekend’s record-breaking, seemingly biblical torrent. Described as a product of tropical moisture from Hurricane Joaquin and a second storm system, two different systems wedged and funneled rain that blasted most of S.C. like a gigantic fire hose. I’m still trying to process it all, while thinking particularly of our friends in Columbia who have suffered a real catastrophe.

So if the sky’s not falling, the tides certainly appear to be rising. Of course, that’s old news, but the lunar effect associated with last week’s “super blood moon” eclipse before the deluge was unbelievable. I don’t ever remember tides being so consistently high shy of major storm activity. At their peak, one could actually reach over the wall at The Battery (the low end) along Murray Boulevard and touch the placid waters.

As for the event itself, it was the only example of a total lunar eclipse I’d ever seen, which I’ve found usually take place in the wee hours of the morning or behind cloud cover — inaccessible in either case, at least for me.

This particular event started about 9 p.m. There were some clouds around, but they seemed to part on cue, and by 10 p.m. the moon looked like an ember glowing in an otherwise quiet fireplace. It was very interesting, but I couldn’t help drawing comparisons to the famous solar eclipse that took place here March 7, 1970.

At the time I was an eighth-grade boarder at what was then known as Aiken Prep School (now part of Mead Hall) during the latter part of Harold Fletcher’s legendary career as headmaster. I got a weekend pass and was home early Saturday afternoon when events started to unfold. Charleston was center cut for the phenomenon and considered an ideal viewing place.

James Island was pretty quiet back in those days. The stretch of Maybank Highway where we lived had only two lanes, much of it edged by moss-covered oaks and towering pines. But things got a lot quieter as the sun’s fiery rays dimmed to twilight. People were told not to look at the sun — or at least not for more than an occasional glance — even during peak eclipse. Somehow the sun’s radiation could still be damaging to their retinae.

For most, though, the admonition was rather futile and not unlike that given Orpheus as he led his beloved Eurydice away from the underworld. How does one not look? I remember staring right at it during part of the 2 to 3 minute window when the sun’s direct rays were completely blocked. There it was, a gray pearl surrounded by a live halo of fire, one of those things (sort of like the Grand Canyon) that has to be seen in real time with the naked eye for the utmost effect. It’s the kind of thing cameras, pencils and paintbrushes don’t quite capture.

Here’s part of what former News and Courier reporter Ben Palmer wrote in the following morning’s paper:

“Near 1 p.m. it was noticeably darker everywhere. It was a strange sort of darkness, not exactly like that of approaching dawn or dusk, and it appeared to reach a certain level and then stop.

“About a minute before totality at 1:25 p.m., the sky began to darken rapidly from the southwest, much like an approaching thunderstorm.

“With the arrival of the complete shadow, it became quite dark — comparable to the darkness on the night of a harvest moon.

“Light returned just as quickly as it left and everything was back to normal within a half hour after totality.”

Palmer described various changes in animal behavior that occurred during the eclipse and reported that there hadn’t been one like it in the Charleston area since 1878. A look at the NASA Eclipse website shows that the next total eclipse to pass over the continental U.S. will take place Aug. 21, 2017. As of now, Charleston is just within the edge of totality. Regardless, it will only take a brief ride to find the target zone and pray for the absence of a summer thunderstorm (or hurricane — perish the thought).

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@comcast.net.

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