Sunday, May 27, 2012

Solo celestial work retreat

You may have heard on the evening news that parts of the western US were scheduled to see a fairly rare annular solar eclipse last Sunday evening.  If you lived along the most central path of the total solar eclipse that occurred on February 26, 1979, but you attended a grade school that did not place any value on science education and therefore confined you and your classmates to the classroom to read a book while your fat teacher when outside to view the perfect total solar eclipse, you might take this passing celestial phenomenon more seriously.  I have wanted to see an eclipse since I was denied the opportunity in 5th grade, so when Watcher alerted me to the coming eclipse and gave me a pair of special eclipse viewing glasses,

I set about arranging my schedule to be in the path of annularity.   Salt Lake City would see only a partial eclipse, but my field area in Utah's West Dessert was in the path.  I needed to go fix some of the surface flow monitoring sites and weather conditions looked fine, so I checked out a vehicle, threw in my new 0-degree sleeping bag, packed some trail mix, and off I went to chase an eclipse.

I needed to go as far south in my field area as possible to see the annular eclipse, which worked out perfectly because the sites in that area were the ones I needed to visit twice during this trip.  I also had promised a colleague I would investigate a small but important water source in that area for him.

Sunday at 6:10 PM I arrived at my chosen camp site.  A small knoll in Hamlin Valley, with a backdrop of the Mountain Home Range and a great view of the western sky and the southern Snake Range. 

I set up my camp for the evening, which consisted of a cot, cooler, and camp chair,
Solo solar camp.

and settled in to view what the cloudless sky promised to be a perfect annular solar eclipse.

In an annular solar eclipse, like a total solar eclipse, the moon travels between the sun (big round white circle in the diagram below) and the Earth (below right), casting its shadow on Earth in a narrow path as the three bodies move through space.

But because the moon is farther from the Earth in an annular eclipse (C, above), entire disc of the sun is not obscured by the moon as viewed from Earth, so the observer sees a "ring of fire" around the round black moon.

At 6:21 PM I looked at the sun through my special glasses and thought I could ever so slightly see a tiny bit of flattening on the lower right side of the sun.  I looked again every 5 or 10 minutes and watched as more and more of the moon "bit into" the round sun like a Pac Man. I didn't have the special filter for my camera, so these pictures are not mine, but here is what I saw. The color is about right.

At one point I said out loud to the coyote that watched me drive in, "That is totally !#$@ing awesome! This is amazing."  Between glances, I looked around at the landscape, growing dimmer and dimmer.  The light was eerie because the shadows were sharp, but nothing was very well lit.  It was as if there was just less light, which is exactly what was happening.

I also had time to make a pinhole camera, which I had never done before.
Eclipse viewing platform. Pinhole camera (box) to the left of the chair.

I wanted to see the eclipse from every possible angle, and it worked.  Every 10 minutes or so I would look into my "camera" and see the round sun turning into more and more of a crescent.  

 Tiny projection of the sun inside my homemade pinhole camera.

Finally, at 7:30:29 PM the whole moon fit inside the sun and the ring was complete!!!!!

I felt a very happy bubble that had been building up since 5th grade burst in my head.  I am not kidding - relief and elation are not too strong of words.  To be there, alone in the wilderness realizing a lifelong dream was pretty damn cool.  How is that for a science geek?

So I sat there for 4 minutes and 9 seconds watching through my special glasses as the ring shifted slightly from one side of the sun to the other.  Awestruck.  And then the total part of the eclipse was over and the moon was moving out, creating a Pac Man facing the other direction.  I ate my salad for dinner between gazes at the sun and glances into the pinhole camera.  I tried to see the crescent shadows reported by others

but could not see any, probably because there was no dappled shade for miles around!  While I was hanging on to view the very last remnants of the eclipse, a cloud moved in front of the setting sun.  It was fascinating to watch how quickly the cloud moved across the sun compared to the moon.

After the show was over, I had a few minutes to hike around a bit before nightfall. The night was cold and clear and I was happy to have my Marmot Ouray sleeping bag to snuggle down into on my cot.

Now for the work part

So the trip was memorable mostly for the eclipse, but there were a number of other cool things too.

Wild Horses

Monday morning I went to investigate Gip Seep in the Mountain Home Range.  The BLM manages this seep as an important water source for wild horses.
Gip Seep

I have seen horses in this area before, but never this close!

I think there were two groups of them.  While I was measuring water quality and flow at the seep (2000 uS and less than 1/6 gallon per minute - not a big water source for a herd of horses and some elk) one group of horses came to drink.  The stallion was not happy that I was hanging around their water source, and pranced back and forth while his brood mares and colts hung back.  I pulled back under cover of the junipers, but they wanted nothing to do with that place while I was there.


Flow measuring

OK, so maybe this part is not as glamorous as solar eclipses or wild horses, but it is kind of a fun and important part of my work.  I measured stream flow in three ditches before the local ranchers rerouted water into a different irrigation ditch and then again after the reroute.  By doing this, I am checking to see if the permanent flumes we have installed to continuously measure the flow are reading accurately.  I have no action shots of this brave hydrogeologist, but here is one of the streams and the flume we have installed.

Next, I got to use some leaky hip waters to muck around in this spring pond

and dig out a bunch of branches recently deposited by Mount Wheeler Power Company into the pool.
I am always a little leery of what might be attached to the end of my hoe when I bring it out of this pond.

I also visited the other 6 monitoring sites for routine maintenance.  It makes for a lot of driving because the sites are so spread out and all the roads are gravel.

Camp 2

No celestial phenomenon occurred during my second night out, but the camp spot was just as remote and the wilderness just as blissfully lonely.

After a very long and dusty day in the field Tuesday I headed for home to see my sweet, sociable husband.  Celestial solo retreat complete.


  1. Wow. You have the coolest job! Glad you were finally able to satisfy your eclipse hankering. OK, before I forget, 2 things:

    1- Hang onto your glasses. Next Tuesday, June 5, is transit of Venus. Easy to view from SLC (pray for clear skies) and last chance to view for 105 years.

    2- Mark you calendar now for August 21, 2017, TOTAL eclipse visible from central Idaho/Northern Wyoming.

  2. You are the coolest science geek I know! Looked like a neat trip.

  3. Wow, I didn't know you had such a cool job! I should have studied science instead. :)


  4. Watcher, the glasses were key in my transit experience, as you will see in an upcoming post. Erica and Niki, yes, science jobs are FUN!