6 Unexpected Consequences of a Solar Eclipse
Malaysian school children wearing glasses with special filters watch the partial solar eclipse at the National Planetarium in Kuala Lumpur on March 9, 2016. Image Credit: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images
by Alex Carter
Fear ye not, stargazer. That solar eclipse doesn’t mean that you’re going to die, that some higher force is about to smite you, or that demons are lurking in the coal shed. No, it means the Moon has passed in front of the Sun. At worst, it will be slightly colder and darker for a few minutes. But there are some unexpected consequences of a solar eclipse that you might not be aware of.
1. ANIMALS ACT STRANGELY.
Animals rely on a day/night cycle in order to function correctly, and the sudden darkness can trick animals into switching their behavior to night-time mode. Nocturnal animals like crickets may start chirping, mosquitoes may come out to feed, and predators such as owls could wake up and venture out of the nest. Other birds, such as geese, instinctively return to roost when the eclipse starts. Cicadas, normally very loud creatures, might stop singing to conserve energy.
Other animals just freak out. Bees markedly increase activity. And hippos? They get scared and hide underwater until it ends.
2. YOU COULD BE SENTENCED TO DEATH (4000 YEARS AGO).
Eclipses were historically considered ill omens by many cultures, but few considered them so portentous as the ancient Chinese. Approximately 4000 years ago, two astronomers called Hsi and Ho were tasked with predicting solar eclipses in an effort to stay ahead of ill fortune. However, their solitude soon begat drunkenness, and they not only failed to predict an eclipse which occurred, but also failed to notice it entirely, and were executed.
3. ELECTRICAL GRIDS WITH SOLAR POWER CAN LOSE OUTPUT.
Take the European Union, which generates approximately 95GW of solar power—a significant proportion of its energy production. During a total solar eclipse in March 2015, the period of darkness during the eclipse caused this output to drop by more than one-third; that’s three times the power output of all the nuclear power plants in the UK combined. Wind power can drop too, as eclipses can cause wind speeds to slow by 1 m/s. Europe managed to keep the lights on during the 2015 eclipse by preparing for it: When the Sun disappeared, utilities switched to other power sources.
4. GRAVITY STOPS WORKING … A LITTLE.
Despite all of the strange myths surrounding eclipses, the idea that gravity changes may actually have some truth to it. There's a well-documented and completely unexplainable phenomenon that gravity simply doesn’t work properly during total eclipses—but only for pendulums. It’s called the Allais Effect, after Maurice Allais, the Nobel Prize–winning economist who first observed this effect in the 1950s. (He also conducted research in physics.)
Since then, during eclipses scientists have observed pendulums swinging faster, changing amplitude, and being knocked as if hit by a shockwave. Many have also failed to notice any effect at all. One theory is that this effect might be due to the influence of gravitational waves.
5. YOU HAVE TO PRAY MORE.
Salat, the Islamic ritualistic prayer, normally takes place five times a day. However, in the event of a solar eclipse, Muslims are expected to make six prayers, the extra being the Salat al-Ayat, or Prayer of the Signs. This is offered out of respect for Allah’s command over nature, and is not just limited to solar eclipses. Any “Sign of God," such as a lunar eclipse or an earthquake, requires this prayer.
6. YOU COULD GO HUNGRY.
Eclipses can be bad omens indeed, especially if you live in India and have just sat down to tea. A local superstition is that the sun’s rays help keep disease away, and during a solar eclipse the lack of these rays causes food to be poisoned. Food is not prepared nor eaten during an eclipse, and any prepared food is thrown away. (Strangely enough, science has since shown that the UV light from the Sun does have an—admittedly small—antibiotic effect. So perhaps this isn't a total myth after all.)