A European eclipse: Where to go?

2010 Total solar eclipse in El Calafate, Argentina by Janne Pyykkö, spaceweather.com

Some 2,5 months remain until a remarkable solar eclipse to occure in Europe. Indeed it has been a long break, as the last one visible all across Europe was the January 2011 one. (link to follow). Though most are probably just happy to see such an event on astronomical calender for their home location, it becomes more complicated when it gets into eclipse chasing. As I appreciate the excelsior approach to this hobby (spotting the largest possible phase along with the presumably best viewing & weather conditions), my focus in this article is on the such locations that might be offering the best chances to see the Sun on March 20th. Limited to the reasonable effort to reach those.

Total solar eclipse will take place in the Arctic seas, thus (so unfortunately) not touching the European mainland. March isn’t the best season in the North Atlantic eather. Although the totality path near-misses the coast of Ísland (partial phase as much as 99.3% in the east coast, near Djúpivogur), the only land to see the total eclipse are the archipelagoes of Føroyar and Svalbard. Both being dependencies of the European kingdoms, Denmark and Norway, respectively, both territories outside of EU / Schengen Area, yet are usually easy to reach with regular airflights. Svalbard bodes statistically higher percentage of clear skies due to the proximity to the cold Arctic anticyclonic air masses, and Føroyar appear to have spontaneously changing weather conditions, it could be anywhere between overcast, foggy or mostly clear. But what’s wrong with it? Regardless of how much enduring or appealing these destinations seem to you, there is a bigger problem emerging from the unexpected side — human factor. The anticipated ratio of eclipse chasers to the local population and tourist facilities is oustanding. Which causes prices to rocket and availability to evanesce. In fact, you shouldn’t be reading this paragraph but considering to book your tour well prior to 2014, more than a year in advance. Paradoxally, the geographically nearest eclipse chase may turn out to be the toughest one out of the many adjacent years.

However, hold on with discontentment, there are good news too. A partial eclipse will be visible all across Europe, with maximum magnitudes ranging from 96% in Scotland and mainland Norway to some 40% in the Ægæan Sea. And not just limited to Europe, but covering also vast areas in Northwest Africa, the Middle East and Central-Northern Asia.2015_Stereographic_MagnitudeSo to specify the preferable location, I would suggest four different plans. A to D consequetively, it gets easier to reach but you see less of the eclipse. Needs to be noticed, however, that Plan A is an ‘all-in’ option, the difference between the others is less dramatic.

A. Longyearbyen, Svalbardlongyearbyen

It worth going that far north, past 78° latitude, to catch a glimpse of the total eclipse, 2 minute 20 second long. An island of Spitsbergen, the largest and the only inhabited of Svalbard Archipelago can only be reached via mainland Norway. Commercial flights are available from Oslo-Gardermoen (2020km or almost 3 hours) and to some extent Tromsø; traveling by sea may not be a good idea in winter. Furthermore, there is an only one international airport in the area, Longyearbyen, a facility located 5km away from the town of Longyear, itself the only reasonably large settlement in Spitsbergen. Provided you have already cared about your accomodation options, there are few things to worry about. Once you have landed in Longyearbyen, you are deep into the totality path and moving somewhere else makes little sense. Natural sightseeing tours may be an option depending on your time frame. Weather is more or less stable, although in case of a snow storm rolling in, it cannot be avoided since there are practically no road on the island and helicopter flights aren’t normally sanctioned for tourist purpose. The fact to consider is the shadow of the nearby hills over the [some areas of the] town which may effectively obstruct the Sun due to its low altitude (11°). Last but not least, Spitsbergen is a wilderness zone, so there is a danger of encountering a polar bear which is not as fun as it may seem. Because of that, it is highly unrecommended to go anywhere beyond the urban area of Longyearbyen unless you have a proper firearm or a guide. Basically, stick to the groups of people, as there are supposed to be many of them!

Summary for Longyearbyen. A remote yet fascinating destination, capable of providing a unique chance to see the eclipsed Sun in the high Arctic. An enduring trip, priced high to very high, and anyway requiring a thourough planning. Weather to expect: -15 to -25°C if clear.

luleaB. Luleå, Sverige

Speaking of a partial eclipse, once again in winter (it is true in March), Northern Scandinavia offers good enough weather chances, as the local anticyclon prevail. Eclipse magnitude is very high, although partial, over 90% (93% in Kiruna, 95% in Tromsø) and the Sun’s altitude just over 20°, which all in combination with pristine boreal landscapes may result in a spectacular scene.
Luleå may be easily reached by air from Stockholm-Arlanda (1,5h) or by road however it would take a whole daytime (10-12h) driving the distance of 900km. Alternatively, there are other destinations in the vicinity, noticeably northwards, such as Kiruna, Sweden or Sodankylä, Suomi, both roughly equidistant at some 4-5 hours driving distance.
Temperatures in Luleå are more likely to be slightly below zero, but may drop as well to -10…-15°C. Will certainly go colder if you move further north/inland, away from the Bay of Bothnia.
Highlight: Location and timing are also perfect for chasing auroræ, as the nights are still over 10 hours long. Consider staying at least a few days in the area.

C. Hamburg, Deutschland

While it does may sound predetermined, it is not, in other words, I would like to say such a location can be anywhere from Brest to København. The eclipse magnitude is quite high, around 83% and the Sun would be at a moderate altitude of 30°. The weather is more tricky than far north, as the vernal rainy fronts from the Atlantic sweep across the Western Europe. But a significant benefit for travelers is a reduced cost of a trip, a huge gain in mobility, and after all, so many people consider such a trip domestic.
Having briefly analysed the weather patterns, I can humbly assume the following: the weather situation in the Western Europe (sans Iberian Peninsula) may be described as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Former describes a predominantly fair weather over the subject area (although not necessarily being explicitly anticyclonical), with some lands being clear and others not. Depending on the short-term weather forecast, one may consider driving towards a sunnier area. On some days it was Belgium / northern France, on some days it was central-southern Germany, or even Czech Republic ― from Hamburg all these lands are approximately equidistant and reached in a matter of 5-8 hours, maximum a half-day. Surprisingly, Alps may be a good diverse idea. However the nearby lands, namely, the Netherlands, Niedersachsen, Schleswig-Holstein should better be avoided as there is a risk of low clouds / fog rolling in from the cold North Sea at almost any time.
It can happen that the weather is worse at a larger scale e.g. a cyclone right over Germany. In such case, the preferable directions may turn out to be the very opposite. Coastal areas of Denmark and the Netherlands get a breeze which blow the clouds away inland. England may also ocassionally get large clear gaps. And somehow, when the forecast is pathetic at many locations, southern Sweden gets only scattered clouds, what due to the lake effect may even result in a mostly clear conditions.

Summary on Western Europe. Average early spring weather is daily 5…10°C, and highly unstable cloud cover averaging 70-80%. Good attention must be paid to the weather forecast, a day or two in advance and the site selection to be made accordingly to it (if desired).

D. Valladolid, Españavalladolid  

Despite Spain enjoys a more southern geographical position it is still not that far away from the eclipse centreline in the North Atlantic, so it results in around 75% magnitudes of the partial eclipse as, for instance, in Valladolid, which is northwest of Madrid but still well enough inland to prevent cloud influx from the ocean. The benefit is that Spain gets, on average, noticeably lesser cloud amount in March, ca. 55% which means, especially if you are able to drive a few hours away, fairly good chances to see the late morning eclipse. Temperatures would probably be a modest to Mediterranean 10…15°C yet still quite pleasurable conditions against those lucky chaps who will be freezing their noses in the ice-reigned Spitsbergen.
Hint. Same areas, I mean Spain and especially its northwest (Galicia, Asturias) would be in a global focus of interest in 11 years, during the total solar eclipse of August 12, 2026. While most of its totality path will stretch across the high Arctic (North Pole, Greenland, a bit of Ísland), Spain would become an only place worldwide to observe it in a favourable, cloudless, warm and easy-to-reach circumstances. Go on, get yourself familiar with an area an plan in advance.

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