A total solar eclipse will trace a narrow path across the contiguous United States on Aug. 21, turning day to night in 14 lucky states.
Anticipation of the astronomical event is already causing quite a buzz. Perhaps this is because this time, almost half of the U.S. population is within a day’s drive from being able to experience the total solar eclipse. Hundreds have made travel plans north or south to meet on the path of totality. In South Carolina alone, authorities are preparing for 1 million spectators on Aug. 21.
For the lucky 12 million people who live in the 60-mile-wide path of totality, the eclipse will pass directly overhead. They will just have to prepare some eclipse-viewing glasses and step outside.
The moon’s shadow, or path of totality, will pass over the states of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. A partial view of the eclipse will be visible across the North American continent, as well as for some in South America, Africa, and Europe, according to NASA.
Total solar eclipses are quite a rare event considering the precise celestial alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth that is required. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes between the Earth and the sun, at times, casting a shadow on the earth’s surface. But the elliptical orbit of the moon means that its size doesn’t always match that of the sun so perfectly. When the moon is further away in its orbit, it results in an annular eclipse where the sun is only partly obscured. Other times, the shadow may fall above or below the Earth, meaning that there is no eclipse.
In a total solar eclipse, the size of the sun and the size of the moon are almost a perfect fit when viewed from Earth, making for an awe-inspiring view of “totality”, said Time.
Watch a Total Solar Eclipse
Spectators in the path of totality will bare witness to a 360-degree sunset around the entire horizon and get to see the sun’s corona; a dazzling right of light around the moon’s silhouette. They will also experience a 5-15 degree temperature drop as the sun’s life-giving rays get temporarily blocked. Totality will last for up to 2 minutes and 40 seconds as the moon moves in front of the sun.
The eclipse will begin at Lincoln Beach, Oregon, where the lunar shadow will arrive at 9:05 a.m. PDT and end in Charleston, South Carolina, where the lunar shadow will leave the mainland at 4:09 EDT. Totality will be visible at Lincoln Beach at 10:16 a.m. PDT and reaches close to Charleston at 2:48 p.m. For viewing times in your state, Time has a minute by minute outline.
Eclipse chaser and retired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak shared with CNET, “If you rate natural phenomena on a scale of 1 to 10, a partial eclipse is perhaps a 3. An annular eclipse—where the moon passes directly between the Earth and the sun, but it’s too small to completely cover the sun, and you’re left with a ring, or annulus, of sunlight—that might be a 6 or a 7. And a total eclipse is 1 MILLION. Seeing a partial eclipse in no way prepares you to see what a total eclipse looks like. They are as different, literally, as day and night.”
Things to Look Out For
Espenak said there are lots of interesting things to look out for during solar eclipses, according to CNET. The best places to get a full appreciation of a solar eclipse is in natural areas like parks, where you can observe the intriguing reactions of animals and plants to the fleeting then returning sunlight.
“You see flowers closing up in the minutes before totality begins, in that dimming sunlight. I’ve seen cows heading back to the barn right before totality begins because light is dropping so much that they think it’s sunset. Birds tend to go to roost,” Espenak said.
“I’ve heard crickets begin serenading us five minutes before totality begins, and they sing all through totality, and then they quiet down five minutes after totality ends as daylight gets brighter and brighter. So there’s a lot of reaction in nature to the dropping sunlight during the eclipse.”
What, I Can ‘Listen’ to the Solar Eclipse?
A team from the Exploratorium will convert photons of light captured from the eclipse to create a unique sonic experience in a procedure called “sonification.” You can ‘listen’ to the sonification of the eclipse as well as view telescope feeds by downloading the free Android or iOS app. For those in San Francisco, the Kronos String Quartet will be accompany the sonification live at the Exploratorium museum during the eclipse.
Watch the eclipse safely
It is dangerous to view eclipses with the naked eyes, except during the brief minutes of totality. NASA recommends only viewing an eclipse with special solar filters that have international ISO 12312-2 certification as well as manufacturer’s details. Homemade filters and ordinary sunglasses are not recommended.
“Looking at the sun without eclipse glasses or solar viewers can cause ‘eclipse blindness’ or retinal burns,” said Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health in an ABC report. “Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even very dark ones, are not safe for looking at the sun.”
You can purchase ISO-compliant solar viewers from retailers like 7-Eleven, Walmart, Kirklands and more. Eclipse glasses may also be available from public libraries that are hosting viewing events and activities with the assistance of collaborating scientists.
Historical Significance of Solar Eclipses
Ancient cultures viewed celestial events and changes in the motion of astronomical bodies as having correlations with or meaning for terrestrial events. “There are many stories of how eclipses have been used to foretell important political events, and for nearly all human civilizations with a recorded history, total solar eclipses were regarded with fear and dread prior to the advent of mathematical schemes for predicting when they would occur,” said NASA’s webpage that explores the historical relationship between eclipses and human culture.
There are also some more pleasant stories about solar eclipses, like one NASA scientist Lika Guhathakurta recalls from an Australian aboriginal tribe who believed that during an eclipse, the moon (man) and sun (wife) would join together, some say pulling the curtains of the sky closed for some privacy.
This will be the first total solar eclipse visible from the continental U.S. (excluding Alaska) since 1979. It has been 99 years since the last total solar eclipse traced a path from the west coast to the east coast of the United States. But the next cross-country total solar eclipse is not too far off; just seven years away in 2024.
Here’s to clear skies on Aug. 21!