Eclipse watchers warned over eyesight risk

Astronomer Royal John Brown has suggested safe ways to watch near-total solar eclipse. Picture: Robert Perry

Astronomer Royal John Brown has suggested safe ways to watch near-total solar eclipse. Picture: Robert Perry

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STARGAZERS hoping to see a once-in-a-lifetime near-total solar eclipse have been warned against attempting to view the spectacle with the naked eye.

The celestial event will be visible in Scotland from around 9.30am on 20 March, when the moon will completely block the sun, offering a great view of its corona.

Those in Scotland and the far north will witness the greatest spectacle, with the percentage of the uncovered sun varying from around 84 per cent in London to 94 per cent in Glasgow and Aberdeen. Shetland and the Outer Hebrides will see up to 98 per cent of the sun obscured by the moon, with Skye and Orkney at around 97 per cent.

The next total eclipse anywhere near the UK will be in 2081 in central Europe, and finally in Britain in 2090.

John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, is encouraging everyone to get out on the day to witness the event, but he is also keen to stress the safety risks of gazing directly at the sun.

He said: “This solar eclipse will be awe-inspiring, as the sun will almost disappear and it will look very dramatic. There will never again be a 
solar eclipse with as high a percentage in my lifetime in the UK.

“However, people do some very daft things like looking at the sun with their bare eyes, or even worse with a set of binoculars – one easy way to burn your eye out.

“There are three simple ways to view this eclipse, using a fancy telescope with a filter or by using a pair of eclipse glasses which you can buy quite cheaply online.

“People have tried using a welding mask but it’s not good enough as the UV rays are quite strong.

“The last and cheapest way is to project the sun using a pinhole in a piece of card or through a set of binoculars onto a white sheet.

“At the last eclipse I viewed in Antalya in Turkey in 2006 we used a colander to project the sun which gave a beautiful pattern of crescents.”

The last total solar eclipse in the UK was in Cornwall in 1999 when public health warnings about the dangers of looking at the sun with unprotected eyes were shown to be heeded by most stargazers.

Several thousand people rang helplines after experiencing the event, but the number of cases of solar retinopathy – damage caused to the retina through looking at the sun – was reported by eye hospitals and units to be lower than widely feared.

Businesses in the north of Scotland – Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides especially – are also hoping to cash in on the many thousands of stargazers expected to head north for the solar eclipse.

A number of special cruises have been organised to take holidaymakers north into the path of the eclipse, while Stornoway Astronomical Society has been “inundated” with requests for information regarding the best locations for viewing the event.

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