A Total Solar Eclipse is brief and, for many, baffling if you’ve not seen one before. Here’s what not to do
First-time eclipse observers often make mistakes that drastically affect their chances of seeing, or enjoying the special event that will happen in the USA on August 21. “Having scientists explain what you’ll see, when to look for it, and what it means to see it will make the Total Solar Eclipse a very special experience,” says Kevin Schindler, historian at Lowell Observatory, which is holding The Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience 2017 in Madras, Oregon. Watching it with professionals is one answer, but you can just as easily plan a trip to watch the eclipse along if you’re careful NOT to make these mistakes:
1 – Underestimate traffic
The key is to be mobile, but everyone will move on the night of the 20 August – so the highways will be jammed. It’s always busy before an eclipse, but for this one in particular, there is expected to be a huge rush of people coming to the Path of Totality from all over the USA. “The biggest traffic jam I see is Interstate 25 coming up from Denver,” says Michael Zeiler at GreatAmericanEclipse.com. “There will be a lot of people who become aware of the eclipse in the last few days beforehand via social media, and they’re going to think it’s a short drive up to see it, so where the I25 meets the Glendo Reservoir is going to be a very congested spot – and also Jackson Hole, which is clearly the most scenic spot along the entire eclipse path.”
So don’t plan to drive around on the day of the eclipse itself; you want to wake-up in position. Relax, enjoy … let the less prepared queue in traffic. If you want to be really prepared and you have the room (perhaps in an RV), pack a bicycle to beat the traffic.
The biggest traffic jam I see is Interstate 25 coming up from Denver.”
2 – Underestimate Totality
It’s ALL about Totality. What’s wrong with a 99% partial eclipse? Less people, and it’s surely only 1% less interesting!? Wrong! “The difference between a partial eclipse and a total eclipse is like the difference between reading a menu and dining, or between having super bowl tickets and listening to the game on the radio in the parking lot” says Eddie Mahoney, the only NASA Ambassador, and Director of Astronomy and host of Tour of the Stars at ‘world’s top hotel for stargazing’, the Hyatt Regency Maui.
The difference between a partial eclipse and a total eclipse is like the difference between reading a menu and dining, or between having super bowl tickets and listening to the game on the radio in the parking lot.”
3 – Obsess over the centreline
To see Totality at all you must be within the 70-mile wide Path of Totality, and the duration greatly increases from the southern or northern limit (where Totality will be visible for split-second) to a couple of minutes or more as you get to the center of that path. “People should head to the centreline if they can, but once you’re 25 miles within the northern or southern limit you’re getting a decent period of Totality there’s no need to obsess about the centreline, just keep away from the edge – you want to be nicely inside the Path of Totality and then let the thing flow over you,” says David ‘Eclipse Guy’ Makepeace (eclipseguy.com).
There’s no need to obsess about the centreline, just keep away from the edge”
4 – Get the timings wrong
The event itself takes about three hours, beginning with a partial eclipse, peaking about 90 minutes later with Totality for a few minutes. Then the whole spectacle goes into reverse with a decreasing partial eclipse. “One of the things that happens is mistakes about timing. Look on NASA’s website and they’ll give you the universal coordinated time and people need to understand that they have to translate it into the local time-zones,” says Mahoney.
There is another source of confusion; since this eclipse stretches from sea to shining sea, it crosses all five continental time-zones in the USA. Know your Pacific Daylight Time from your Eastern Daylight Time, and get the nailed-on local timings right for your observation location by using www.timeanddate.com/eclipse
5 – Watch Totality through a camera lens
It lasts two minutes. TWO MINUTES! Are you seriously going to waste that precious time fiddling with a camera? With thousands upon thousands of professional astro-photographers getting ready for this eclipse, there are bound to be hundreds you can download for free from NASA and the American Astronomical Society. “If you’ve never done astrophotography before, don’t spend Totality fiddling with equipment because you’ll miss the experience,” says Mahoney.
If you’ve never done astrophotography before, don’t spend Totality fiddling with equipment because you’ll miss the experience.”
6 – Don’t have a Plan B
Maybe you’ve slavishly checked the predicted weather conditions at the NOAA’s NCEI or NCIC and decided to avoid the coasts and the area east of the Mississippi River. But that will count for nothing if you wake-up on August 21 to rain. So have a Plan B – and put it into action before August 20. “If I see that the weather is not good on the satellite maps not the night before, but two days before, then I can go somewhere else, maybe east to Oregon or to the West,” says Tommy Tat-fung Tse from Hong Kong, a veteran of over 10 Total Solar Eclipses.
7 – Forget about water & restrooms
Three hours, late August … this eclipse is going to be HOT! You’ll need sunscreen, a hat, lots of water, food, something to sit on, and somewhere to relieve yourself. If you don’t get all of this sorted in advance you’re probably not going to enjoy Totality when it comes. “Just get yourself a nice comfortable lawn chair, sit back, relax and just experience Totality – don’t let anything else distract you,” says Mahoney, who includes photography in that list. “Bring your sunscreen, water and party favours, and your favorite treats and snacks.”
It’s a once in a lifetime event and it’s a life-changing event, and it’s so important to make plans now. If you haven’t, get on it, find out where to be, and how you’re going to get there.”
8 – Overestimate the traffic
Warning: eclipse coming – avoid entire area. This is typical response by local people in areas crossed by the Path of Totality, who often panic, fear congestion and annoyance, and flee the area for a few days. So how about avoiding the ‘Totality traffic’ to watch a big 99% partial eclipse from somewhere quiet? “No, no, no – if you can do it, get there, whatever it takes,” says Mahoney. “It’s a once in a lifetime event and it’s a life-changing event, and it’s so important to make plans now. If you haven’t, get on it, find out where to be, and how you’re going to get there.”
Image credit: Jamie Carter