A rare solar event will draw eyes to the skies above the Mother Lode on Sunday evening.
Known as an annular eclipse, the moon will pass between the Earth and sun, darkening the sky and turning the appearance of the sun into a bright “ring of fire.”
It’s the first time the celestial event has graced the western United States since 1994. The next won’t be visible until 2023.
“These particular eclipses happen somewhere on the planet every couple of years, but seeing it from your backyard is pretty special,” said Dr. Nancy Muleady-Mecham, who splits her time between teaching an astronomy seminar at Big Trees State Park and working as a biology professor at Northern Arizona University.
The annular eclipse differs from a total solar eclipse in that the moon blocks less of the sun’s visible surface and the moon appears smaller.
The yellow ring around the sun will appear incomplete in the Mother Lode region, creating a “C” shape rather than a complete “O.” The moon will block out about 87 percent of the sun’s surface, Muleady-Mecham said.
“It’s going to be a little bit off the mark in our area,” she added.
In other parts of the world, the eclipse will create a halo around the moon. She said parts of Asia including most of Japan will be able to see the full annular ring. Residents of California will have to go north of Chico to see the full effect and the entire display will take about two hours from start to finish.
Muleady-Mecham said the darkening of the sky will resemble an overcast day. People won’t be able to view stars with the naked eye, however they might be able to see the planet Venus.
William Luebke, retired astronomy professor with Modesto Junior College, said the phenomenon won’t completely darken the area.
“It will look like twilight. You will just see a ring where the sun is supposed to be,” Luebke said. In fact, the name “annular” comes from the Latin word for ring, he added.
He strongly warned against people looking directly into the sun or using standard binoculars or telescopes to look at the eclipse. He said enough light still passes around the moon to severely damage people’s eyes.
People can look at the eclipse with a pair of specially made eclipse glasses or look through No. 14 welders glass. Experts say viewers must block 99.999 percent of the light emanating from the sun to avoid eye damage.
Alternatively, Muleady-Mecham said, viewers can make a pinhole through a piece of cardboard and look at the eclipse reflected on a white piece of paper.
Cloudy skies have the potential to block the rare event, but the forecast in the region calls for clear skies and 90-degree temperatures.
The eclipse will start in China and pass over the Pacific Ocean, crossing Northern California, Nevada, southern Utah, northern Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and ending in Texas.
The annular eclipse comes just two weeks after the “supermoon,” which was a full moon that appeared while its orbit was closest to Earth.
Luebke Modesto Junior College astronomy class will be at the school’s science building with special telescopes and equipment that will allow the public to view the stellar event safely.
Muleady-Mecham is teaching a natural history discovery program at Big Trees from July 13-15 that will deal with astronomical observations as well as other science topics. For more information, visit www.bigtrees.org.