27 March 2006

Nigeria: Eclipse? Don't Panic... Just a Natural Occurrence

Lagos — In a matter of hours, some parts of the country will be experiencing solar eclipse. It is expected to take off from Brazil, cross the Atlantic Ocean, permeate into West Africa, find its way to the Coast of Ghana, then cross to Togo and then move into Nigeria, sweep through the western part of the country and then take its exit around Katsina and move into Niger Republic rising towards Libya.

According to metrological experts, five states in the country would experience 30 minutes of darkness. According to the Minister of Science and Technology, Prof. Turner Isoun the states are, Oyo, Kwara, Katsina, Zamfara and Niger, which he said are going to be thrown into total darkness between 9.15am and 9.45am. The remaining 31 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) are to experience partial eclipse, he stated.

This year eclipse calls for early preparation and sensitisation of Nigerians to forestall any kind of speculations. The Federal Government has cautioned Nigerians and foreigners resident in Nigeria to prepare for the impending solar eclipse without fear or worry. The police authorities will also be put on alert to curtail any possible break down of law and order as it was the case in Borno State, in 2001 when there was eclipse of the sun which some people interpreted as a sign of evil happening that led to killing of people and destroying of properties.

Eclipse occurrence is not new in Nigeria. One occurred in 1898, another one in 1947 and that of 1959. The most recent was in 2001, the very particular case in Borno State that people did not understand. According to the Information and National Orientation Minister, Mr. Frank Nweke, government said it was nothing ominous in such occurrences. "The Federal Government once again reminded Nigerians about the impending solar eclipse, otherwise known as the eclipse of the sun. This incident occurs at new moon and only if the moon passes between the sun and the earth, which causes the brightness of the sun to be replaced, momentarily, by the black disk of the moon. This does not happen very often but it is expected to take place on March 29.

"I will like to inform Nigerians that solar eclipses are occurrences within the solar system, whereby the moon is directly between the sun and other planets, including the earth, our planet. Many of us would recall that in June 2001, some parts of the world including Nigeria experienced solar eclipse.

"I know it is natural for people to be frightened and react terribly to unusual incidents but I urge Nigerians and foreigners resident in Nigeria not to panic over the expected eclipse. It is not expected to have any real damaging effect, only on social and psychological discomforts are envisaged.

"However,, since eclipses are now of interest not only to scientists but also to the public, I passionately appeal to all Nigerians not to look at the sun directly because it may cause eye ailments that may lead to blindness in the long run. This is why scientists use a special type of glasses or other devices to view solar eclipses. I therefore strongly advise people to stay indoors for the period the eclipse is expected to last", the minister advised.

A lecturer and consultant, department of Geography, University of Lagos (UNILAG), Dr. Nna Oscar Uluocha, explained that eclipse is the obscuring of one celestial body by another, particularly that of the sun or a planetary satellite. The celestial bodies, he said include the sun, the moon and the earth and indeed other planets that could be obscured.

There are two kinds of eclipses that involve the earth. These are the moon or lunar eclipse and those of the sun or solar eclipse. Lunar eclipse Uluocha said occurs when the earth comes in-between the sun and the moon, such that the light of the moon is overshadowed by the shadow that is cast by the earth on the moon, then lunar eclipse occurs.

On solar eclipse, which the country is expecting, the lecturer further explained that it occurs when the moon comes in-between the sun and the earth, such that the moon blocks the sun from being seen on earth. The maximum duration of a total solar eclipse is about 7.5 minutes, but such eclipse are rare, he said, occurring only once in several thousand years.

Technological advancement, he said, has made it easier for people to know when eclipse will occur. "These days one can actually predict the occurrence of eclipse. There is a calendar on that and the celestial bodies are monitored. When the position of the sun is determined, vis-avis the position of the earth and then the moon, astrologers could be able to say that a time like this, we are likely to have an eclipse", Uluocha said.

Because the planetary bodies are on the same plane and not angular, probably, the world according to him, would have been experiencing eclipse on a daily basis. But because they are not in that form and are also in constant motion, it's relatively easier to predict lunar or solar eclipse. He revealed that Nigeria will experience another eclipse in 2010, which will be annular eclipse.

Potential consequences and implications of eclipses from scientific point of view are ascertained. Uluocha maintained that the concept of eclipse, though an old one indeed has not been well understood by man because of the nature of the sun.

"Even the hobble telescope, the biggest and most powerful instrument that is in existence in the world today can not be focused on the sun because of the radiation that comes from it and can easily destroy the equipment. In that regard, the entire world is handicapped, especially the scientific world and the world of astronomy", he said.

But what scientist are still identifying are some possible implications of the eclipse, especially the solar. When there is solar eclipse from his point of view and because it happens during the day time, it usually affects life in one way or the other. For examples, animals he said are usually confused because of the internal-biological clock that works in them, same as human being.

The internal biological clock he explained tells one some certain things to do, like going to bed and time to rise from bed. "When there is eclipse, the internal biological-clock in animals will be telling them that it is not time to go bed. But the physical environment suggest otherwise. So, they become confused, either by obeying their instinct or obeying the darkness that is in place. In that case, those animals will actually go to sleep, then the nocturnal animals will think it is night already for them to operate. So, they are confused, either to launch out their activities or to remain", he said.

He also said it has been observed that before the unset of an eclipse, some animals also begin to migrate. Though, that is one phenomenon that people are still trying to understand whether they have some premonitions that an eclipse is to occur.

From a religious point of view, an eclipse has certain implications. Uluocha reiterated that when the lunar eclipse that occurred in 2001 at the Northern part of the country, it caused a lot of distractions in the sense that the Moslem communities, especially the Almajiris, went on rampage. They thought that the light of the moon was darkened because of the sins of the people.

"They went out to look for the infidels who were accused of being responsible for the darkening of the light of the moon. As far as they were concerned, it was unnatural for the light of the moon to be darkened when it was supposed to be shining very bright. So, they went out destroying properties, hotels, churches, killed non-Moslems, prostitutes, native doctors amongst other things. They felt that what happened was as a result of the sin of the people", he said.

Apart from the social implications of eclipse, it also has an impact on the earth surface. The lecturer explained that when there is usually a solar flare, which is similar to volcanic eruption. Because the sun is made up of a large mass of gas, which is not as solid as the earth, times, it erupts. When there is eruption, the solar flares will shoot-out part of the gas into space, and part of it will spread over and come down to the earth.

That kind of occurrence he said was reported in 2004 in Japan and Britain, when some satellite systems in the sky were destroyed, including telecommunication. However, he noted that solar eclipse, affords scientists the opportunity of studying the solar flare, other than when there is no eclipse. He further stressed that another good side of eclipse is it could be used as dating system in villages.

Head of Environmental and Climate Predictions, Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET), Dr. Ernest Afiesimama, explained that within that period of eclipse, the affected states, will experience a kind of night time situation in the morning hour, such that one would not be able to see with the naked eyes, except aided by well illuminated environment.

He stressed that those driving are expected to put on their full light on as if it is in the nigh time, as it is not going to be a long time phenomenon at the expected areas. Though the occurrence he said may not affect flight schedules, however, he advised that people should keep a widow of some minutes out of their schedule.

Afiesimama advised that people should not regard the eclipse as if something has gone wrong in the universe or wanting to know if it is a bad omen, whether the gods are angry or it is diabolical and so many speculations that may be expected of people who are not sensitised in the atmospheric phenomenon. From his point of view, there is nothing to panic about the eclipse. This is because of the infra-red radiation and the brilliant light that is associated with the sun due to the concentration of helium gas, he advised that looking at the sun with the naked eyes within that period eclipse will take place, should be avoided as that could cause a life-long damage of the eyes.

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