Astronomer Michael E. Dakich proclaimed the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States in an arc from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21 might be the most-viewed eclipse ever. He based his estimate on media coverage, weather patterns in mid-August, and the number of population centers near its path.
What everyone will see is the Earth, moon and sun lining up with the moon directly between the sun and Earth at the exact distance to block out the sun. Since the moon’s orbit around Earth is slightly tilted and the Earth and moon have slightly elliptical orbits and travel at different distances from the sun and each other, the phenomenon we’ll see has not happened since Feb. 26, 1979, and the path of that eclipse crossed over only five states in the northwest.
The shadow of the eclipse lands on our planet over the North Pacific Ocean where astronomers say the sun will actually rise from that spot while totally eclipsed, a phenomenon seldom seen even by experienced eclipse chasers.
The shadow makes landfall just north of Newport, Ore., at 10:15 a.m. PDT, and the path continues its dark journey across 14 states before leaving behind Key Bay, S. Carolina, at 2:39 p.m. EDT, and heading over the Atlantic.
People in Portland, Seattle, Denver, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Memphis and Atlanta will see at least 90 percent of the sun obscured by the moon. Kansas City will be on the southern edge of the path of totality and St. Louis on the northern edge.
Idaho Falls, Idaho, is expecting so many visitors the Chamber of Commerce is concerned that restaurants will not be able to feed everyone. Other towns along the path are becoming boomtowns as eclipse-watchers make plans to gather for the best view.
The location with the lengthiest view of the totality will be Giant City State Park, less than ten miles south of Carbondale, Ill. Folks there will see the sun blotted out for two minutes and 40 seconds, but if the weather accommodates, everyone in the continental United States will be able to see the moon covering at least 48 percent of the sun.
The countdown for the event for those in Fayetteville, Ark., begins at 11:43 a.m. with the maximum eclipse occurring at 1:12 p.m. The prediction is for 92 percent of the sun to be obscured for Northwest Arkansas with only a crescent-shaped sliver of the sun remaining visible below the moon. Things get back to normal in our area around 2:45 p.m.
There are also partial solar eclipses, annual solar eclipses and lunar eclipses during the year, all of which are predictable and catalogued online. This focus is primarily on total solar eclipses.
It is estimated that in 600 million years or so, the moon will have inched just far enough away from Earth that total solar eclipses will no longer be possible, so enjoy them while you can.
Don’t look! But look!
The Internet is awash with information about the eclipse, and all sites warn us not to look directly at the event or we risk permanent eye damage. However, sunglasses sufficient to protect the viewer are available from many websites and retail outlets. Carroll and Madison Library cardholders can get a pair free at the Carnegie Library while supplies last. Astronomy Magazine stated an appropriate pair of sunglasses for viewing the eclipse would be equivalent to 13 pairs of regular sunglasses.
Mreclipse.com, the site of retired astronomer Fred Espanek, explains an eclipse has two components. The path of the inner shadow of totality is called the umbra, usually about 100 miles wide but possibly 10,000 miles long. Outside that path is the penumbra, or the partial eclipse shadow.
Espanek says, “The path of a total eclipse can cross any part of Earth. Even the North and South Poles get a total eclipse sooner or later.” However, the paths are predictable, and the average wait-time for a total eclipse to follow the same pathway is about 375 years.
Total eclipses usually last two or three minutes at most, but the Space Facts website predicts there will be one June 13, 2132, lasting 7.5 minutes.
Eclipses in history
Eclipses have proved to be powerful events for Earth’s inhabitants. Just before an eclipse, temperatures drop, darkness prevails in the middle of the day, and planets and bright stars can be visible in the sky. There is an odd shimmering in the air we do not see any other time, and beneath trees there might appear dozens and dozens of crescent shapes as the muted light filters through the leaves.
History reports that birds stop chirping and return to their nests. An observer in Zimbabwe noted hippos took to the water during totality as they usually do when dusk settles, but “showed nervousness for the rest of the afternoon.” Bees retreated to the hive during the dark and refused to leave when the sun reappeared.
A researcher in Mexico reported spiders took down their webs during totality. Others reported frogs and crickets began their nightsinging and bats and owls became active.
During a 1984 eclipse, an observer saw captive female chimpanzees with their young gather at the top of a climbing structure. Eventually the other chimps joined them, and one juvenile pointed toward the sun and moon.
Since eclipses are silent, pets are probably affected more by how their humans behave, and some animals do not seem to notice at all.
According to History.com, a total solar eclipse in 585 B.C. inspired a ceasefire between the Lydians and Medes after a five-year battle over control of Anatolia. When the sky darkened and the midday sun disappeared, soldiers interpreted the event as a signal from the gods for peace and they put down their weapons.
In 840, deeply religious Louis the Pious, third son of Charlemagne and heir to his father’s empire, saw a solar eclipse as a sign of impending punishment from God and reportedly died of fright.
Christopher Columbus sailed for his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502. Legend holds that after a year of exploring Central America, worms began eating holes in his ship and he was forced to find refuge in Jamaica. The warm welcome for the sailors waned after a year, and the indigenous people stopped offering food for Columbus’s men. Columbus learned from an almanac he carried that a lunar eclipse was nigh. According to the story, Columbus told the locals because they had stopped feeding his men, the gods were unhappy and would turn the moon bloody red. Sure enough, a lunar eclipse turned the moon red, and the locals again shared food with Columbus and his crew.
A similar adventure occurred in 1869 in remote Alaska when explorer and astronomer George Davidson encountered a hostile Chilkat tribe. Davidson convinced them he was a scientist there only to observe the sun turn dark the following day. It did, and the mystified Chilkat retreated into the woods probably saving Davidson and his men from attack.
The gospels mention the sky turned dark after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, so historians place the event during a solar eclipse in either 29 A.D. or 33 A.D.
Space.com states, “During 1919’s epic eclipse, in which the sun vanished for six minutes and 51 seconds, scientists measured the bending of light from stars as they passed near the sun. The findings confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which describes gravity as warping of space-time.”
To understand an event as disruptive and enormous as an eclipse, when the very sun we depend on partially or totally disappears on an otherwise clear day, civilizations have conjured a variety of mythical explanations through history. Often, natives will interpret the event as something eating the sun. An early Chinese word for eclipse meant “to eat,” and for them it was a dragon eating the sun. For ancient Vikings, it was a pair of wolves. For folks in Vietnam, it was a frog. In Korea, it was fire dogs.
People of the Togo and Benin area of West Africa interpret an eclipse as the sun and moon fighting, and people on Earth can stop the battle by coming together to resolve their own differences. The Navajo also see an eclipse as a call to pause and reflect on our place in the scheme of things. Navajo families would stay inside and sing special songs but avoided eating, drinking or sleeping to maintain a natural balance in the world.
Ethnologists went to Suriname in 1973 to monitor the Kalina who still carry out another eclipse tradition found around the world. They see the sun and moon as brothers who occasionally fight. These fights threaten the entire world, so during the eclipse the Kalina do their part to stop the fighting by yelling at the sun and moon and banging on pots or drums to make as much noise as possible to get their attention.
Dr. Marek Kukula is the Public Astronomer at the British Observatory Greenwich, and wrote that he organized an eclipse tour to a remote spot deep in the Libyan desert for his first total solar eclipse experience. He was well organized and totally prepared to explain the science of what his participants would see.
“Nothing prepared me for the visceral sense of unease as the sunlight faded under a cloudless sky… I looked toward the horizon and saw a wall of darkness rushing toward me: the shadow of the moon travelling at more than 1000 miles per hour. No one had told me the sky would take on such an intense shade of indigo, or that the moon would seem like a black hole punched into the heavens. After four long minutes, when the first dazzling beam of sunshine erupted from behind the moon’s disc, I realized with surprise that I had been crying.”
We will continue to see eclipses, and the dates and times are listed in various sites online, but, ready or not, here comes a special one Monday, August 21. Whether we yell, beat on drums, sing songs or cry, it should be an event to remember, and possibly a time to resolve some differences.