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Total Solar Eclipse of 1998 February 26

Weather Prospects in the Leeward Islands

Jay Anderson

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The last land-based sites from which to watch the eclipse are over the Leeward Islands of Guadeloupe, Antigua and Montserrat and a few smaller outposts. Once again the center of the eclipse track misses land, passing down the middle of the Guadeloupe Passage. Cloud conditions are not so favorable as those along the north coast of South America, but fine enough to present a good opportunity to view the Sun at the critical moment.

Montserrat lies within the shadow path, on the north side of the center line. At Plymouth, the capital, eclipse duration is 2m 57s. A road heads south from Plymouth to St. Patrick's, about 3 km away to the south, and actually goes beyond that, close to the south tip of the island. The eclipse duration here is 3m 3s, or 14 seconds less than the duration on the center line. A volcano in the Soufriére Hills at the south end of island erupted in early 1996. It will add an extra challenge to eclipse observers if it remains active.

Guadeloupe, a French Region on the opposite side of the track and the Passage, is the largest of the islands in the eclipse shadow. It is really two islands, connected by a bridge across a narrow strait. Almost all of the two islands lies within the zone of totality, but for most observers, the most northerly points of land will be the most attractive. At the northern tip of Basse-Terre (the larger and westernmost island), the eclipse duration is 3m 00s. The northern tip of Grande-Terre experiences the same duration.

The climatological record at Pointe-à-Pitre, the capital of Guadeloupe, shows that sunshine in February reaches two-thirds of the amount possible if it were clear from sunrise to sunset. This is about 15% less than over the Dutch Antilles, Venezuela and parts of Colombia, but still indicates a very sunny climate. Much of the cloudiness will be attached to the terrain, with hills and volcanoes deflecting the trade winds upward to promote the growth of convective clouds. Terrain is much more elevated on Basse-Terre where the 1465 m high volcano La Soufri¸re dominates the skyline. Usually cloaked in cloud, the volcano may be a spectacular perch from which to view the eclipse, and especially the incoming and outgoing shadow. The summit is quite flat, though with spurting sulfurous fumes on a yellow landscape.

Keep an eye on the peak for a few days before the eclipse to assess your chances of seeing the Sun at the critical moments. Cloud buildups are likely to be suppressed by the cooling associated with the oncoming shadow, but be careful about fog which will probably form very quickly between second and third contact on the windward slopes of the volcano, even if skies are perfectly clear beforehand. If you are not on the peak but instead elect for lower slopes, at the very least try to place yourself on the leeward (west) side of the mountain in time for totality.

According to annual rainfall statistics, the driest spot on Guadeloupe is the northeast coast of Grande-Terre, east of the community of Campàche. This area is near the closest point to the center line, the aptly named Pointe de la Grande Vigie. It should also be the sunniest location on the island, though eclipse conditions will depend on the weather of the day, rather than the accumulated wisdom of climatology. In all Caribbean islands the rainfall and cloudiness are related to topography. Annual rainfall at the top of La Soufriére is estimated to reach ten meters while that on the windward east coast is less than one.

Antigua is a little further from the center line than either Montserrat or Guadeloupe, and the maximum eclipse duration is of the order of 2m 47s. The more desirable spots on this island are found on the southeastern shores, near the community of English Harbor ("one of the world's most attractive yachting centres"). A good location here might be Shirley Heights, the site of 18th century fortifications and giving a view in all directions. Since the south coast of the island lies more or less parallel to the eclipse line, there is little to recommend one site in this area over another as far as timing is concerned. Hotels and tourist facilities available at the community of English Harbor will make it a popular destination, but road access is also convenient for less populated spots at Carlisle Bay and Old Road Bluff.

Sunshine statistics are not available for Montserrat or Antigua, but weather should be very similar to Guadeloupe. Mean cloud falls within the range of 40 to 50 percent with local statistics favoring the higher number. This may not represent actual conditions too well, since the higher elevations on these islands are often necklaced with clouds, which must be included in the amounts reported by ground observers. This will tend to make official reports appear more cloudy than is actually the case at the best coastal eclipse sites. Still, there is no doubt that cloud cover on the Leeward Islands is heavier than farther west along the South American coast, but if eclipses on sandy beaches with overhanging palm trees appeal to you, then the Leewards are a choice location.

The island of Redonda, northwest of Montserrat, also lies within the path, but is no more than an uninhabited small rocky outcrop. Carnival is celebrated in the latter part of February on Guadeloupe, with congested streets and slow moving traffic (1 km/h by one account). By eclipse day, festivities should be over, with Lent replacing the festivities of the week before. Carnival is held in July on Antigua.

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Adapted from NASA RP 1383 "Total Solar Eclipse of 1998 February 26".

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Last revised: 1997 April 24 - F. Espenak