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Solar eclipse 2012: L.A.'s last show in '92 obscured by clouds

May 17, 2012 |  6:41 am

Image of annular eclipse on Jan. 4, 2011 on the Japanese Hinode satellite. Credit: Courtesy of NASAIn 1992, Los Angeles was to have the best solar eclipse it would see in more than two centuries. It was going to be spectacular — a full, exquisite "ring of fire" eclipse before sunset.

And then, to the horror of 15,000 people who gathered at Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood Hills, no eclipse came. Clouds canceled the show. 

"We can't see anything," Jonathon Lee lamented to The Times that fateful Saturday evening on Jan. 4. 

So, friends, let us learn the lessons of 1992. Let us learn how to avoid the painful disappointment of a cloudy eclipse. In Los Angeles, the eclipse will begin Sunday at 5:24 p.m., hit its maximum at 6:38 p.m. and end at 7:42 p.m., just 10 minutes before sunset.

Step 1: On the California coast, beware of the fog and low clouds. 

In 1992, many flocked to the beaches and were horribly disappointed when, in the words of one viewer, Ryan Thorp, "the dumb cloud got in the way."

Back then, the clouds were heralding a winter storm. But the clouds that Southern Californians may have to fear this weekend are those typical for our "May Gray" climate, where low clouds rush in from the sea at night — coming in early as 5 p.m. or as late as 10 p.m., said National Weather Service meteorologist Curt Kaplan.

Kaplan said it's too early to know what the forecast will be Sunday, but low clouds can sometimes hang on the coast all day or stay off the coast until well after dark.

A safer bet, cloud-wise, would be to watch the view further inland, in the valleys, mountains and desert.

"You're taking a chance if you're doing it from the coast. But it could be clear. The last few days, it's been clear here" in Oxnard, Kaplan said. 

But be sure that you have an unobstructed view of the northwest horizon. And it's best to be watching from an elevated position, according to Griffith Observatory director Ed Krupp.

In fact, in 1992, some people did see the eclipse along the coast. It just depended where you stood. (To be fair, you had to have an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean to see the '92 eclipse, because its peak event happened mere minutes before sunset. But Sunday's peak event will occur more than an hour before sunset, when the sun is higher in the sky.)

Step 2: Wherever you go, get there early. 

If you decide to ignore Step 1, then prepare for big crowds at the beaches. In 1992, parking lots were jammed all along the coast. The Times reported that cars were backed up for miles along the two main routes into Laguna Beach, and Main Street was nearly as crowded as on the Fourth of July holiday.

But the crowds this Sunday could be tempered by the fact that this weekend's event in Southern California will be a partial eclipse, not a full "ring of fire." Nonetheless, it'll still be impressive, with 86% of the sun's diameter eaten by the moon.

For the full "ring of fire" experience, you would have to go to Albuquerque, the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park in Utah or such spots in Northern California as Eureka, Redding, the northern suburbs of Sacramento or Lake Tahoe. 

National parks seem to be popular for this weekend's eclipse-watching, offering wide, unobstructed vistas of the horizon.

Step 3: Be prepared for disappointment.

Sometimes, the weather will just get the best of you. 

In 1992, The Times reported on how Jeff Sloan, an engineer and eclipse buff, spent weeks touring Orange County to map the very best vantage point. He was an experienced veteran, having traveled as far as Kenya, Java and Baja California to watch astronomical delights. 

He finally decided on a vacant lot high in the hills of San Clemente, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, The Times reported. 

After setting up an array of cameras and telescopes, he and about 20 friends waited. Then the sun sank behind a bank of clouds for most of the eclipse. 

Bonus question: When will the next full eclipse be in the continental United States?

If you ignore this weekend's eclipse, the next time a full eclipse will come to the lower 48 states will be on Aug. 21, 2017. But that one will be further from L.A., coming in through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, southern Illinois, western Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina. 

Total eclipse versus annular eclipse. Credit: NASAThe 2017 event will be a "total" eclipse, which is far more spectacular than this weekend's "annular" eclipse. An annular eclipse is when the moon covers up most of the sun except for the sun's outer fringe, leaving visible a ring of fire, or "annulus," which is Latin for ring. 

A total eclipse, by contrast, blocks so much sunlight that the ground is cast in an eerie midday twilight — a far more breathtaking experience. 

So when is the next time L.A. will see its own annular or total eclipse?

The next annular eclipse in Los Angeles will happen in 2121, according to calculations by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientist Fred Espenak. And the next total eclipse? None is expected through 3000 AD.

A list of significant partial eclipses, past and future, from Los Angeles, can be found here.


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— Rong-Gong Lin II 

Photo: Image of annular eclipse on Jan. 4, 2011 on the Japanese Hinode satellite. Credit: NASA. Photo: Total eclipse versus annular eclipse. Credit: NASA