Science World
Science World for grades 6–10 brings science to life with fascinating feature articles and hands-on activities that reinforce science concepts and help students build test-taking and critical-thinking skills.

Moon Shadow

On July 11, 1991, the Moon passed directly between the Earth and the Sun, casting an eerie shadow on our planet. As the Earth rotated, the shadow moved across its surface, sending chills up and down the spines of people and animals below. We're talking total solar eclipse here.

Bob Victor, an astronomer at Abrams Planetarium in Michigan, wouldn't have missed it for the world. "Once the Moon starts covering up the Sun," he says, you'll see "darkness sweep across the sky." Then suddenly, the heavens will turn a dark, dark blue — so dark you'll be able to see some stars. "It's a hair-raising experience," says Victor.

Total Darkness

The Moon's shadow swept an inky-dark "path of totality" over Hawaii, across the Pacific Ocean, over Mexico's Baja Peninsula, and all the way to the rain forests of Brazil. This is the area where the Sun's light was "completely" blocked by the Moon.

Rarely does a total eclipse shadow pass over so much land area (for the simple reason that there's a lot more water than land on our planet's surface). Because the shadow darkened so many cities, an estimated 48 million Earthlings witnessed this haunting solar event.

Most people saw a "partial eclipse," where the Moon only covers part of the Sun. It looked like the Sun had a big bite taken out of it, and the shadow was not as dark. (Only some people in Alaska, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Massachusetts were entirely out of the Moon's shadow.)

You may be more partial to a partial eclipse anyway, if you scare easily. Folklore has it that the ghostly Moon shadow of an eclipse has ended wars and made animals go crazy. Victor says there's no scientific proof for these tales. But that doesn't mean an eclipse can't cause strange behavior. When the Moon blocks the Sun and suddenly turns day into night, birds freak out. At one eclipse Victor watched in Quebec, he says, "Birds that chirp during the day stopped singings, while other birds that sing only in the evening started chirping away."

Catch It

The next solar eclipse to cross the continental U.S. will be in the year 2017. That one won't last nearly as long as the 1991 eclipse, which winked out the Sun for six minutes and 54 seconds at maximum. (The longest possible total eclipse is 7 minutes and 31 seconds). "This was one of the longest total eclipses of the century," says Victor, who's seen six in the last 30 years hooked for life."


November 1, 1991

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