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Mark your calendar for August 21, 2017, for ‘the most exciting thing people can see’

In 2017, the continental United States will get its first total solar eclipse in 38 years

BY AMY SAYLE

Image on right: Total solar eclipse in 2010, Easter Island. (Credit: Jay Pasachoff, Muzhou Lu, Craig Malamut, Hana Druckmüllerová)

Total solar eclipse in 2010, Easter Island. (Credit: Jay Pasachoff, Muzhou Lu, Craig Malamut, Hana Druckmüllerová)

When Cheryl Cook got an email eight years ago asking about her town’s plans for a total solar eclipse in 2017, she suspected it was a joke.

Cook, who is the executive director of the Hopkinsville (Ky.) – Christian County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, said she hadn’t known anything about the eclipse.

“I started Googling and I realized how big it was going to be for Hopkinsville,” she said.

The eclipse will occur around mid-day on August 21, 2017, and it will likely be big for every community that lies within the path of totality.

People in that narrow corridor can witness what is considered by many to be nature’s most awe-inspiring sight, when the moon passes directly in front of the sun and completely covers the sun’s disk. Those standing in the path of totality created by the moon’s umbral (dark inner) shadow sweeping across the surface of Earth will get to see a total solar eclipse.

The path of totality will be roughly 60 to 70 miles wide and will cut across the continental United States, from the coast of Oregon to the coast of South Carolina, passing through parts of 12 states and clipping a very tiny corner of two more.

Within the band, the eclipse will be total. (Credit: Fred Espenak, MrEclipse.com)

Image above: Within the band, the eclipse will be total. (Credit: Fred Espenak, MrEclipse.com)

Depending on the specific location, the total eclipse will last for up to two minutes and 40 seconds. The rest of the United States outside of the path of totality, and much of the rest of the Americas, will get a partial solar eclipse.

Lying within the path of totality are cities such as Salem, Oregon; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Casper, Wyoming; Lincoln, Nebraska; Columbia, Missouri; Nashville, Tennessee; and Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina. The cities of Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, straddle the edge of the path.

A rarely seen spectacle

A total eclipse of the sun is “the most exciting thing people can see,” said Jay Pasachoff, Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. Pasachoff has viewed more than 30 total solar eclipses. “There is a primal joy and fear in the sky darkening in the midst of the day,” he said.

A total solar eclipse “looks like the end of the world,” said another veteran eclipse chaser, Doug Duncan, director of Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado.

“It’s not just dark,” he said. “You see silver streamers of the [sun’s] corona, it gets cold, animals do weird things, the color balance of everything you see shifts, almost like you’re in a dream. People cry and scream.”

A total solar eclipse typically happens somewhere in the world about once every year or two. But seeing one from any single location is much rarer than that, only once every 375 years on average.

The last total solar eclipse visible from the United States, in Hawaii only, was in 1991. The last one visible from the 48 states, from the northwest only, was in 1979. And the last total solar eclipse visible from a path that cut across the entire continental U.S. happened nearly a century ago, in 1918.

Anyone who misses the 2017 eclipse will have to wait seven years for the next total solar eclipse from the continental U.S., on April 8, 2024.

‘They’re going to come so we need to be ready’

Millions of people live within the path of totality, and astronomers and educators are hoping many more will travel to get there. Planning has already begun.

Angela Speck, who co-chairs a national task force associated with the American Astronomical Society (AAS), said she wants to “make this as big as the Apollo mission in terms of impact.” The task force is focusing on science and public outreach related to the 2017 eclipse.

An astrophysicist at the University of Missouri, Speck also has plans for her local community, Columbia. Speck plans to pack the university’s football stadium with people witnessing the total eclipse, as well as the partial phases before and after. Additionally, piped-in images will follow the total eclipse from landfall in Oregon as the moon’s shadow races across the country to reach the coast of South Carolina about 90 minutes later.

In Hopkinsville, planning began in earnest about three years ago, according to Scott Bain, a physics and astronomy professor at Hopkinsville Community College. This city of about 30,000 lies on the centerline of the eclipse path and is relatively near both the points of greatest eclipse and the longest duration of the eclipse. In 2012, Bain and Cook began an annual poster contest for elementary school students to educate them about the eclipse.

Cook is working on plans for how the city will handle a potential influx of tens of thousands of visitors from the U.S. and around the world. People have been trying to book lodging for more than seven years, she said, and she wants to “make sure we have lots of things for them to do.”

It’s not just cities that are beginning to think about the upcoming eclipse. At Grand Teton National Park, where the eclipse will be total, Megan Kohli, youth and volunteer program manager at the park, wrote in an email that she imagines the park will do a “star party” for the eclipse.

Others have already made solid plans to view the eclipse from that area. Duncan said that he has reserved half the rooms in the park’s Jackson Lake Lodge for an eclipse trip that he’s organizing.

Shelley Hall, the superintendent at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon, said that whether or not the park offers an outreach event, “they’re going to come, so we need to be ready.” Hall said she thinks it’s not unreasonable to expect thousands of people to show up for the eclipse.

Image below: Thousands of people are expected to converge on locations along the path of totality, such as this national monument in Oregon (Credit: Tyler Nordgren, http://www.tylernordgren.com)

Thousands of people are expected to converge on locations along the path of totality, such as this national monument in Oregon (Credit: Tyler Nordgren, http://www.tylernordgren.com)

Meanwhile, the unit of the park that she said people seemed to be most interested in for eclipse viewing has “two one-stall bathrooms and parking for maybe 50 spaces.” Hall said she has been considering issues such as crowd control and getting portable toilets and extra staff and law enforcement.

An opportunity for education and science

With past eclipses, warnings about eye safety have sometimes gone overboard, causing people to miss out on the experience altogether. Speck said that there’s a “long history of kids being prevented from viewing eclipses because of worries about their eyes.” She wants the AAS task force to “make sure teachers get all they need to get students engaged with this.”

Another member of the AAS task force, Mario Motta, a physician and amateur astronomer, said he wants to send the message that the eclipse is an educational opportunity and that everyone should be encouraged to look at it, safely.

It’s safe to look at the sun directly only during totality, Motta said. “Looking at the sun even if it’s 99% covered is still looking at the sun,” he said. “And it doesn’t elicit the pain reflex when it’s a thin crescent. [Unless] it’s total, use proper filtering.”

Proper filters for viewing the sun during the partial phases include eclipse glasses or a solar telescope. Eclipse chaser Mark Margolis owns a company that sells eclipse glasses. He said, “We will definitely be ramping up production for this.” The sun can also be viewed using indirect methods, such as with a pinhole projector.

Viewing a total solar eclipse is not just an educational opportunity. There’s science to be done as well. According to Pasachoff, even though there are spacecraft studying the sun, “the spacecraft with current technology can’t see parts of the sun that we can study from eclipses.”

Get thee to totality . . . and clear skies

So where should people go to see the solar eclipse? Astronomers emphasize that you really, really want to be where the eclipse is total—not merely partial, not even if the sun is 99% eclipsed. The difference between a partial and total eclipse is quite literally the difference between day and night.

“An almost total eclipse is like being almost pregnant. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t count,” said Duncan. “The sun is so incredibly bright that even one percent of the sun still shining ruins everything. . . You have to go where it’s total.”

Another consideration is what locations are likely to have clear skies during the eclipse. Canadian meteorologist Jay Anderson writes on his website that based on 22 years of satellite observations the “best weather prospects are found in northern Oregon, Idaho, central Wyoming, and western Nebraska.”

The average August afternoon cloudiness derived from 22 years of satellite observations. The path of totality lies between the red lines. Blue areas are expected to have fewer clouds; orange and red areas, more. (Credit: Jay Anderson)

Image above: The average August afternoon cloudiness derived from 22 years of satellite observations. The path of totality lies between the red lines. Blue areas are expected to have fewer clouds; orange and red areas, more. (Credit: Jay Anderson)

Pasachoff said that to maximize his chances of not being clouded out, he’ll be headed to the northwest, even though totality lasts longer in the southeast. “Two minutes in the northwest and clear skies is better than two minutes and 40 seconds and cloudy skies elsewhere,” he said.

Fred Espenak, NASA’s “Mr. Eclipse,” will be speaking at the Astronomical League’s national convention in Casper, Wyoming, the week before the eclipse. In an email he wrote that he plans to stay to watch the eclipse there if the weather forecast looks good. However, if necessary, “I will drive up to 1000 miles to reach clear sky,” he wrote.

Espenak isn’t the only one who thinks driving that far is worth it. Duncan said, “If a total eclipse happens within a thousand miles of you, get in your car and go. You’ll remember it your whole life.”

August 21, 2017 falls on a Monday, by the way. Mark your calendar now, and plan to make it a 3-day (or more) weekend.

For her part, Cook is already planning for your arrival in Hopkinsville.

“As a Southern Baptist, I want to make sure there’s enough food,” she said.

 

Find more information about the August 21, 2017 eclipse at these links: