Magical views from top of the world for solar eclipse

LONGYEARBYEN (AFP) - All eyes were on the skies early Friday for a solar eclipse set to offer spectacular views, from selected airplane seats, European countries with the right weather and a remote Arctic archipelago.

Europeans got their first glimpse through cloudy skies in Spain's Canary Islands in the early morning.

"The sky is half clouded over but we are getting short glimpses" of the eclipse, Alfred Rosenberg, an astrophysicist at the Canaries Astrophysics Institute told AFP from the island of Tenerife.

"We can see perfectly well the disc of the moon which is covering the sun. It is very nice. It is one of the most marvellous astronomical spectacles you can see." A partial eclipse of varying degrees would be visible later, weather permitting, across most of Europe, northern Africa, northwest Asia and the Middle East, before finishing its show close to the North Pole.

Die-hard eclipse junkies have flown in to the Faroe Islands, a Danish autonomous territory, and Norway's Arctic Svalbard archipelago, from around the world to observe the less than three minutes of daytime darkness, a phenomenon that has fascinated mankind since the beginning of time.

More than 8,000 visitors were expected in the Faroes, where the total eclipse began at 9:41 am (0941 GMT), and some 1,500 to 2,000 were expected in Svalbard, where it should start at 11:11 am (1011 GMT).

A group of 50 Danes bought tickets aboard a Boeing 737 chartered by a science magazine to watch the event from the skies above the Faroe Islands.

While they will be shielded from the vagaries of Faroese weather, there are some things they won't get to experience when watching the eclipse from the sky.

"If you're on the ground you can hear the birds behaving differently, and the temperature falls," John Valentin Mikkelsen, a 63-year-old teacher from the Danish city of Aarhus told AFP.

"And maybe we won't get the full view as the windows are quite small," he added.

In Svalbard, which is just emerging from four months of winter darkness, hotels have been fully-booked for years ahead of the event, the 10th solar eclipse of the 21st century.

In the Arctic archipelago, where everything is extreme, visitors must contend with temperatures as low as -20 deg C at this time of year.

And then there's the threat of roaming polar bears.

A Czech tourist who was lightly injured in a polar bear attack on Thursday served as a reminder of the danger posed by the animals, which have killed five people since 1971 in Svalbard.

Total eclipses occur when the moon moves between Earth and the Sun, and the three bodies align precisely.

The moon as seen from Earth is just broad enough to cover the solar face, creating a breath-taking silver halo in an indigo sky pocked by daytime stars.

Elsewhere, the eclipse will be partial, to varying degrees: the sun will be 97 per cent hidden in Reykjavik, 93 per cent in Edinburgh, 84 per cent in London and 78 percent in Paris and cloudy weather conditions were expected to threaten the spectacle.

In cities like London and Paris, observers won't get much of a sense of darkness.

"It won't get very dark because even at 20 per cent, the sun still brightens up (the sky) a lot," Patrick Rocher of the IMCCE astronomy institute in France told AFP.

"What will be different is that the light will come from a crescent-shaped sun," he said.

The next total solar eclipse visible from Europe is not due until August 12, 2026.

Another celestial phenomenon is also expected on Friday.

Earth's satellite will appear as a "supermoon," which happens at its closest point to our planet, its perigee.

This, and the moon's alignment with the sun, will add to the gravitational pull on the seas - creating what is literally a high point in the 18-year lunar cycle.

The celestial ballet will on Saturday result in major tides most perceptible in Canada's Bay of Fundy, on the French Atlantic coast, in the English Channel and North Sea - but even the Mediterranean will feel the difference.

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