Rain's Return Could Block View of Rare Eclipse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A storm front expected to arrive Saturday threatens to cheat Ventura County residents of their one chance in 250 years to watch an annular eclipse of the sun.

Saturday's event, in which the moon will obscure all but a ring of light from the sun, will begin at 3:33 p.m. and will conclude just before sunset at 4:54 p.m.

An annular eclipse occurs in any given area about once in 250 years, and it occurs at sunset only once every 20,000 years, scientists say.

National Park Service rangers plan to meet a group of about 100 science buffs on Santa Barbara Island--a four-hour boat trip from shore--to watch the eclipse unobscured by pollution, city lights or land. The island excursion is full, but the service also will sponsor a gathering at a 1,700-foot peak at the Circle X Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. Information on the free program may be obtained by calling 818-597-1036.

Thousands of other area residents are expected to find knolls overlooking the ocean anywhere from the southern part of Ventura County to Mexico to watch the eclipse. Viewers who are north of Oxnard will see only partial effects of the eclipse.

But the once-in-a-lifetime event may go unobserved if the sky clouds over as forecasted. The storm front that buffeted the county with scattered showers and blustery winds up to 30 m.p.h. Thursday is expected to be followed by light showers today. And another storm may hit the coast Saturday, said Terry Schaeffer, National Weather Service meteorologist in Santa Paula.

The rain from that storm may wait until Saturday night or Sunday.

"There could be a break where we would have cloud-free skies," he said. He said Saturday's storm could bring half an inch to an inch of rain to the coast, but a forecaster working on contract to Ventura County called for more than 1 1/2 inches.

Even if the rain does not begin until after the eclipse, however, Schaeffer said there is a 50-50 chance that clouds may move in ahead of the moisture, blocking out the sun.

"If it's a storm that covers the entire state, the only way to see it is to rent an airplane and get above the clouds," said Hal Jandorf, instructor of astronomy at Moorpark College and head of the Moorpark College Observatory. "That would wipe us out. But we're hoping for a clear space between the two storms."

Jandorf said the event will be so unusual and the sight so spectacular that he intends to bring along a bottle of rare champagne to celebrate.

"It's just a coincidence that (part) of the path is right here in Southern California," he said. "Normally you have to travel all over the place to watch an eclipse like this."

Jandorf said the college observatory is not a suitable place to watch the event because of surrounding mountains. The ideal spot, he said, is somewhere south of Oxnard on a slight incline with an unobstructed view of the ocean. Malibu would provide a perfect viewing spot, he said.

But Jandorf and all scientists caution that viewers should use protective filters to prevent permanent damage to the eyes.

Jandorf recommends welder's glass No. 12 or 14 to use as a protective filter; the glass can be obtained at welding supply stores on weekdays, he said.

"Otherwise they will be seeing that eclipse for the rest of their lives burned into their retinas," he said.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes between the sun and the Earth. Saturday's eclipse will not totally block the sun because of the relative positions of the sun, moon and Earth.

Today, Earth is at its closest point to the sun, and the moon reaches its farthest point from the Earth on Monday. That makes the moon appear smaller than it does during a total eclipse, leaving a ring of sun visible.

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