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How an ‘atmospheric river’ spoiled Monday’s total solar eclipse in Chile

The Earth, sun and moon were in perfect alignment, but the atmosphere didn’t get the memo

Water vapor satellite imagery shows a fierce “atmospheric river” bringing downpours and cloud cover to Chile and Argentina before and during Monday's total solar eclipse. The path of totality is marked in yellow. (RAMMB/CIRA)

TALCA, Chile — Astronomers and skywatchers alike had looked forward to Monday, Dec. 14, for years — a total solar eclipse would darken a swath of Chile and Argentina, the moon blotting out the sun for just over two minutes as the sun’s breathtaking atmosphere emerged to the naked eye.

Unfortunately for many, myself included, the long-awaited celestial spectacle largely flopped. Chile, one of two countries fortunate enough to be crossed by the narrow swath of totality, was socked in beneath cloud cover thanks to a soggy “atmospheric river.”

It was real, and it was spectacular. Last year's solar eclipse illuminated the joys of life.

While some in Argentina were treated to the indescribable elegance and beauty of the solar corona promenading outward from behind the moon, the only thing visible in Chile was a brief night-like darkening of the ambient overcast.

For those of us who had spent months of planning, forked out thousands of dollars and devised a detailed itinerary in accordance with the latest evolving health guidance from the U.S. and Chilean governments, it marked a hefty letdown that seemed consistent with the running theme of 2020.

Total solar eclipses are arguably the most serene, otherworldly and scientifically spiritual scene visible on our planet. They happen once every year and a half or so, but the thin sliver of real estate they visit often carves out a track in remote or inaccessible areas. Umbraphiles, or those infatuated with basking in the moon’s shadow, go to great lengths to put themselves in position for each solar eclipse they can.

I caught the eclipse bug in 2017, when my friend and meteorologist colleague, Dan Satterfield, and I drove to the vast emptiness of the Nebraska Sandhills and set up shop, not knowing what to expect. When the sky faded to twilight and the delicate, luminous solar corona, or atmosphere, appeared, we vowed to never miss another one.

On July 2 last year, we traveled to La Serena, Chile, where we rendezvoused with the sun’s corona one again, perched atop a mountain for the 2 minutes 32 seconds of splendor.

Dan and I knew we’d be back in South America for Monday’s total solar eclipse, and we had tossed around the idea of flying to Chile and crossing into Argentina, where the weather prospects were historically favored to be better. Our tickets were booked in early 2020. Then a global pandemic ensued, and we were forced to cancel.

But in late November, the Chilean government announced it would reopen to international travelers, allowing tourists to enter without quarantine after Dec. 7 as long as they presented proof of a negative coronavirus test. Dan and I rebooked our tickets and scrambled to plot an itinerary. Unfortunately, Dan later learned he wouldn’t be able to make the trip, but I decided to still give it a go. I spent weeks crafting a plan and four backup plans, meticulously studying all government health protocols.

Things were looking good until 48 hours before my trip. That’s when evolving health guidance meant that, one by one, the dominoes of my itinerary toppled. After making 19 adjustments and hastily rebooking and revising, I hopped on the one American Airlines flight to Chile and crossed my fingers.

The continued closure of Argentina meant that I would be at the mercy of the weather in Chile. I’d only have 92 miles west to east to position myself, and any errant weather systems could easily sock in that entire region beneath a veil of clouds. By late last week, I was in the path of totality — but Monday’s weather wasn’t looking promising.

Models simulated an atmospheric river — a slender, juicy conveyor belt of deep atmospheric moisture — aimed at the coast. It became apparent that the feature would target the 56-mile-wide path of totality Monday, aligning perfectly to ruin the show for most. My only hope was that drying in its wake would overspread the extreme southwest extremity of the path of totality in time for the show.

In the end, I awoke at 4:30 a.m., drove an extra four hours and agonized futilely over the forecast — only for sunshine to emerge 10 minutes after totality. The same fate was shared by hundreds of thousands of Chileans who were unable to see beyond thick low clouds that blotted out the show.

During past eclipses, I had spent my time frantically taking photos of the dynamic solar corona. But this time, I knew any efforts would be in vain. Five minutes before totality, I accepted that the weather was hopeless. I tossed aside my camera, stood there with my eyes open, and waited.

Two minutes before totality, animals went silent. I was situated next to a farm, and I watched sheep return from feeding to settle in for the night. The birds, previously chatty, quieted. The brisk wind went nearly calm.

That’s when night descended. At first, it was like a giant thunderstorm had crossed in front of the sun, but the light kept fading. Within 30 seconds, the landscape was thrust into a dusky slumber, the sky overhead transforming beneath an overcast azure. Along the southern horizon, daylight was visible to my south outside the zone of totality.

In the end, the sullied show paled in comparison to what I had witnessed in years prior. As meteorologists, we forecast the weather, but that doesn’t make us immune to its caprice. In this case, the deck was stacked against skywatchers, and those of us in Chile took an inevitable loss.

Across the border in Argentina, most of the path was equally cloudy. A few lucky gaps in the overcast did appear, however, and Argentines in the right place at the right time were treated to the sight of a lifetime.

Check out these photos captured in Argentina during Monday’s total solar eclipse: