'Ring of Fire' eclipse puts on a show for southern Utah crowds
Kanarraville• Cheers, applause, howls and even a rendition of the chorus to Johnny Cash's famous song filled the air Sunday as the moon turned the sun into a burning ring of fire at 7:31 p.m.
Thousands of people gathered in this small southern Utah town of 300, with bumper-to-bumper cars lining the nine miles of Old Highway 91 between the two Kanarraville exits. Thousands more parked in a field near the edge of town.
The cloudless sky offered a perfect view of the event, and those who traveled to see it were happy they did.
"For most of the people here, this will be the best single celestial event of their lives," said Rob Robinson, a member of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society for the last decade, who brought his entire family to see the annular solar eclipse.
In southern Utah, and particularly between Cedar City and St. George, the sun became a thin ring for a full five minutes before the moon began to make its exit. The eclipse began at 6:22 p.m. and ended at about 8:37 p.m., though the sun sunk below the horizon at about 8:08 p.m.
Leigh Jennings, a Salt Lake City resident who teaches second grade, found out about the eclipse when she took her class to Clark Planetarium in January.
"I wanted to come see it for myself," she said, adding she will share photos of it with her class. "This is my first solar eclipse. I've seen lunar eclipses before, and I love watching the stars."
Kevin Kopaunik traveled down from Sandy with his kids, ranging in age from 6 to 17, to see something "that won't happen again for a long time."
"Whoever didn't see it missed out, man," he said.
About 10,000 people did take advantage of the view in Kanarraville, with between 3,000 and 4,000 gathered at a field off Spring Creek Road where vendors and portable toilets were set up, and the rest lined up along Old Highway 91, said Bonnie Char Oldroyd, public relations specialist with the Cedar City/Brian Head Tourism Bureau. People wearing Panama hats held them up to the sun to cast scores of mini shadows of the eclipsed sun across their shirts. Others gazed through solar telescopes, seeing the ring of the sun with solar flares shooting off its edges.
The sunlight dimmed to near twilight when the eclipse reached full annularity the point when the sun was most covered by the moon.
"You're seeing the solar system in motion," said Patrick Wiggins, NASA/JPL solar system ambassador to Utah, who was near tears at the sight. "I've been waiting since the 1980s to see this happen."
Such an eclipse can occur multiple times a year, but it can only be seen from a small portion of the planet. The last annular eclipse visible from the United States was in January 1994, and the next one won't happen until Oct. 14, 2023, Wiggins said.
The eclipse happens only during a new moon, when the illuminated side of the moon is facing away from the Earth. It doesn't happen frequently because the moon's orbit is tilted, so it is often below or above the Earth.
The difference between an annular eclipse and a full eclipse depends on how far from Earth the moon is as it makes its elliptical orbit.
When the moon is farther from the Earth, it blocks only about 90 percent of the sun, causing an annular eclipse.
In the Salt Lake City, eclipse watchers could see what is called a deep partial eclipse, when the sun becomes a crescent as the moon passes in front of it.
Around 300 people lined up to view the eclipse through several telescopes set up at Dimple Dell Recreation Center in Sandy. Mary Regalado said she saw her first eclipse when she was 10 in Peru and wanted her daughter to experience it herself.
Melissa Regalado, Mary's daughter who is in elementary school, said she was excited to see her first solar eclipse.
"It's a beautiful, natural phenomenon to watch," she said.
The skies held a few clouds, but viewers were still able to see the event without much interruption.
Jeff and Angie Brown, who brought their own eclipse viewers made out of shipping boxes, said showing their four children the eclipse was important to rounding out their education.
"[We] try to get these guys exposed to as much as possible from the symphony to eclipses to hiking Zion National Park," Jeff Brown said.
Teresa Edwards, who missed the last solar eclipse, said it was important for her daughter Haylee, 7, to seize a rare chance to see a "wonderful event of nature."
"It's an opportunity that, if you don't take once, you may never see it again in your lifetime," Edwards said.