Total Solar Eclipse: What to Expect and What to Look For
On Monday August 21, we have the ultimate nature event happening on US soil: a total solar eclipse. If you are not sure whether or not you have seen a total solar eclipse, then you have not. If you had, you would never forget it.
The map below (from NASA) shows where you need to be in order to see a total solar eclipse. Anywhere outside that 70 mile wide band of shadow, you will only see a partial eclipse. While partial eclipses are interesting, there is nothing like seeing a total. You may know the science, you may have seen the photos, but nothing prepares you for your own reaction upon seeing one. The only danger in it is that you may become hooked, wanting to see all the future solar eclipses. This may be a problem. They are not rare, but that band of shadow usually happens in faraway, expensive to get to, countries, or sometimes in middle of the ocean, sometimes in Antarctica, sometimes in a desert.
The next total solar eclipse to occur in the US will be in 2024 —and it will be visible in Ohio! Unfortunately, given our state’s track record for cloudy days, the chances are you will still need to travel somewhere else.
Our planet is truly unique in our solar system. We live on the only world, that we know of, where a celestial body can so perfectly fit over the bright face of the sun, allowing us to see its glorious outer atmosphere. This happens because the sun, by sheer coincidence, is 400 times larger than our moon but also 400 times further away- allowing the moon to cast a thin shadow upon our world when the three line up, just so.
What You’ll See
First contact is just what it sounds like, when the shadow of the moon just barely touches the edge of the Sun. Over the next hour or so, the moon will slowly slide across the face of the sun, looking like a black disk. At this stage you will need proper eye protection, because it’s dangerously tempting to stare at the sun (and, as you know, that is never a good idea). During this partial phase, you can see the shadows on the ground echo what is happening in the sky.
Just before the sun is completely covered, a time called second contact, you’ll note the quality of light is changing all around you.
In the instant before totality, there is an effect called Bailey’s beads. This occurs when the sun is completely covered by the moon, but for a few valleys and low spots, giving the visual appearance of a string of beads along its curved edge. It is a brilliant and beautiful sight.
When totality happens, it is safe to stare as much as you want. The moon will appear as the blackest, black dot imaginable. The corona, the sun’s thin outer atmosphere, shines pearly white around it. Some ancient peoples called this sight The Eye of God.
During totality, the stars will be out in the sky and wild animals will go through their nightly routine, acting as if the sun had just set. Surprisingly, the sky will not turn completely dark. In every direction there will be a glowing deep twilight. The eclipse happens slow enough to allow your eyes to become dark adapted, and the corona is still throwing quite a lot of light around the sun.
The closer you are to the center line of the path of shadow shown on the map, the longer totality will last. For this eclipse, totality will last, at most 2 minutes and 42 seconds.
When totality ends, and if you can remember (and it is hard to remember anything at that point), look at light surfaces nearby. Sometimes there is an effect called “shadow bands” that look like shimmering light coming out of the ground or walls. Witnesses compare it to the reflection of light in a swimming pool lit up at night. It is no wonder people throughout history thought eclipses were bad omens, as if ghosts were summoned from the ground. This effect also happens just before totality as well, but you will likely be too busy to notice.
Third contact is the reverse of second contact, when the sun pokes out from behind the moon. This creates an amazing effect called The Diamond Ring, named for the piercing blob of blinding light shining like an impossibly brilliant diamond with a slight ring still made by the corona. As soon as this happens, you will need to use eye protection again.
Immediately after third contact, you will also forget that there is a fourth contact and you will be asking around “when and where is the next one?”
But if you have a good view of the horizon (nearby mountains are especially cool), look at the shadow moving away from you. It moves at 5 mach speed and the best way to describe it is as if an UFO from a CGI laden sci-fi movie were flying above us. Goose bumps are par for the course.
Check the map for nearby places you can reach that day. If you travel, hotel prices in the path of totality have skyrocketed and will already be booked. The best plan is to find a place within an hour’s drive or so of totality.
Double check the weather in the region you are in and follow the clear skies.
Unless you are a photographer who knows your metier, do not waste your time trying to take pictures. Your eyes are the best camera you will ever have, and the memories of your experience will last a lifetime. If you insist in taking pictures, please remember to turn off the flash, which your camera will probably automatically turn on due to the lower light levels. No camera flash can reach the sun and it will only ruin everyone else’s night vision around you.
If you do see it, you will not regret it. Not only is it a great experience, but it also gives every human being an appreciation for the uniqueness and beauty of our planet. We live on the “Goldilocks” planet of our solar system, where water and life are possible—and where the greatest spectacle in our solar system happens every now and then.
by LUCIA HOEHNE
Project Coordinator II
Originally achieving her architectural license in Brazil, Lucia's skills and knowledge are as diverse, as they are expansive. Lucia is passionate and thoughtful. She's actually a self-proclaimed geek at heart. She enjoys reading, writing, and constantly learning new things.