Patrick Rowan’s Skywatch: North American solar eclipse of 2017

The moon will completely block the midday sun along a track bisecting the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on Aug. 21.

The Great North American Solar Eclipse of 2017 will be the first coast-to-coast solar eclipse in 99 years, and the first visible solely from the U.S. Here in Greater Springfield, for the first time in a generation, more than 70 percent of the sun will be eclipsed.

Totality is the holy grail of eclipses, and an unparalleled skywatching event. The brighter stars and planets come out in the daytime, and the solar corona — the sun’s extended atmosphere — becomes visible in all it’s glory — no telescopes or eye protection needed.

Photographs can’t convey the nuanced beauty of the corona’s filament structure. Ron Woodland, a local astronomy educator who has witnessed several solar eclipses, called totality “the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Nothing compares with it.”

About 200 million people are within a day’s drive of the path of totality, and many will travel from farther, including skywatchers and amateur astronomers from Western Mass, and around the world. Occurring in the middle of the day during prime summer vacation season, this could easily become the most viewed total eclipse in world history.

With unknown numbers rushing in, this will be a mammoth cultural experiment, and a secondary story-line has developed. Here’s a hint: Firm up your eclipse travel plans quickly.

As interest grows and more people make plans to go, the potential for traffic jams and associated issues increases. Those worries provoke further news coverage and alert many who otherwise might not have noticed. Some will want to see what all the commotion is about. By planning trips, they’ll help fuel a classic feedback loop, causing the situation to snowball.

As one of the who-knows-how-many, I’m concerned. Hotels and campgrounds in the best locations are already essentially full, and the “too-late zone” is expanding outward from the path of totality. Transportation options are shrinking, and prices are climbing, so even if I managed to find the perfect spot, I could run into trouble getting there.

My cousin in Charlotte, North Carolina — just 90 minutes north of totality — has kindly offered her hospitality. A round trip by train is within my means, but I’d have to rent a car for the final miles. As I worry about getting caught in gridlock, even they could become unavailable. Ugh.

South Carolina is expecting a million visitors for the eclipse, some say more. One experienced blogger wrote “We’re going down two days before, and I’m worried about even that.”

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Seeing the sun’s corona during a total solar eclipse is on my bucket list, so I’ve got to try. But the specter of unpleasantness haunts me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll get there at all. So, please don’t remind me that this is also Atlantic Coast hurricane season, OK?

My friend, eclipse veteran Ed Faits, thinks concerns are overblown: “The path of totality is 70 miles wide, and thousands of miles long” he said, “I find it hard to believe there’s not room for everybody.” Easy for him to say; he made his arrangements over a year ago. I’m sure he’ll be settled in and ready for totality as us newcomers jockey for access along the center-line where the eclipse will be deepest and last longest.

Still, I’m not panicking. By traveling farther west, I could bypass more densely populated regions and enjoy better weather prospects, but those costs quickly become prohibitive. Weighing the rising costs and dwindling prospects is proving difficult, and at this point, I’ll sleep in a car, or on the ground if I have to. Or something.

All this uncertainty caught me off-guard, and prompted a last minute change of subject for this column. Yesterday (Tuesday) marked the 20th anniversary of the Mars Pathfinder landing on July 4, 1997, and I was looking forward to sharing perspectives on our two subsequent decades of uninterrupted robotic presence at Mars. But this eclipse — if you’ll excuse the pun — over-shadowed that.

I saw my first and only total solar eclipse in 1963, when my father drove me and my four oldest siblings to Maine. After car trouble and several days of heroic effort, he got us to the edge of the path of totality, and joined those pulled over on the interstate to watch. Others continued on their merry way, strangely and inexplicably.

We made it… just barely, but our brief experience of totality was forever tainted by the headlights of a nearby parked car that came on while pointed in our faces. At our location, totality lasted only seconds, but Dad largely hid his frustration.

That was 54 years ago. The interstate highway system was in its infancy with only a fraction of today’s 46 thousand miles. People traveled, but not so freely. Cars broke down, dotting the roadsides with evidence that even modest trips involved uncertainty.

Ron Woodland remembers too. He recounted how, on the way to Mount Desert Island in Maine for the same 1963 eclipse, his 1953 Plymouth was losing power. “It might have been a bad head gasket” he said. “I was really concerned that that we wouldn’t see the eclipse, but the old car held out.”

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The Aug. 21 eclipse covers way more territory, as do the highways. Dependable cars, better access to transportation, and ubiquitous communication, have altered the landscape, so drawing direct comparisons with past eclipses is a stretch. And, oh, there are more than twice as many people on the planet.

Now the Department of Transportation is asking people not to park along highways. The website “americaneclipseusa” notes that “There is a real danger during the 2 minutes of totality that traffic still on the road will pull over at unsafe locations with distracted drivers behind them.”

Being stuck on a freeway in summer heat with limited access to “water, food, bathroom facilities and gasoline” could add to accidents and breakdowns, ruining trips and affecting surrounding travelers. And this could be an unprecedented test for road aid and emergency services.

The signs have been here for a while. In April, 1,000 state campsites in Oregon were booked within minutes — some claim seconds — of being announced. Record crowds are expected in at least 20 national parks. Friends and family are hearing from those in search of places to stay. There’s simply no way to know how this will play out.

Richard Sanderson, curator of physical science at the Springfield Science Museum, has seen several total eclipses around the world. He told me that periodically he “checks” the reservations he made a year and a half ago: “I keep calling and asking them about my room, like how many beds there are, just to make sure my reservations are still there” he chuckled. But his laugh had a serious undertone: “If you showed up with kids, and they said ‘we can’t accommodate you’, you’d be stranded,” he said.

So why all the commotion? Total solar eclipses are the result of a rather amazing cosmic coincidence: the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun, but also 400 times closer, making it an almost perfect match for the sun’s disc.

The last total solar eclipse to touch the contiguous United States was in 1979. The upper western states saw totality, but in Western Mass, the moon covered a only a portion of the sun’s disk… similar to what we’ll see during the coming August 21 event.

We missed a shot at totality on May 10, 1994 when the eclipse center-line crossed southern Vermont and New Hampshire. But it was an annular eclipse, so those in the path saw a ring of sunlight surrounding the moon in mid-eclipse instead.

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Annular eclipses occur when the moon is at a more distant part of its orbit of Earth — making it appear smaller compared with the sun. It’s that simple. Without totality, the corona cannot be seen, and eye protection must be used, just as for partial eclipses.

In the year 2000, on a bright, crisp Christmas afternoon here in Western Mass, the moon covered about half the sun’s disk. My wife and I viewed it from inside the house, carefully projecting the partially obscured sun’s large image onto white cardboard with a cheap telescope. (Everyone knows to never, ever look through a telescope at the sun, right?)

Safe viewing methods include #14 welders glass, and specially designed eclipse glasses. Several area libraries, including Chicopee City Library, and Forbes Library in Northampton, expect to make eclipse glasses available during the eclipse.

If not, you can make a pinhole projection box, although I think surveying crescent suns projected onto the ground through tree leaves is more fun.

In seven years, a solar eclipse will bring totality to northern New England.

Find rise and set times for the sun and moon, and follow ever-changing celestial highlights in the Skywatch section of the Weather Almanac in The  Republican and Sunday Republican.

Patrick Rowan has written Skywatch for The Republican since 1987 and has been a Weather Almanac contributor since the mid 1990s. A native of Long Island, Rowan graduated from Northampton High School, studied astronomy at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the ’70s and was a research assistant for the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory. From 1981 to 1994, Rowan worked at the Springfield Science Museum’s Seymour Planetarium, most of that time as planetarium manager. Rowan lives in the Florence section of Northampton with his wife, Clara, and cat, Luna.