By David Ward
Less than two months from now we get to experience the event of a lifetime, a chance to stand under the shadow of the moon. It has been 38 years since a total eclipse of the sun has visited the continental United States.
Here in the Methow Valley, most of the sun will be covered and that will be pretty cool. But do not cheat yourself — a partial eclipse is really not such a big deal. We had one here just a few years ago and probably most people did not even notice. A partial eclipse is like almost falling in love or like going to the gift shop at Niagara Falls and buying a postcard rather than seeing the real thing. When I ask someone if they have ever seen an eclipse of the sun and their reply is “I think maybe I did,” I know they only saw a partial eclipse. No one ever forgets a total eclipse.
Normally I would never advise anyone to leave our beautiful valley, but on Aug. 21, you should be in Oregon. If you do have a reservation at a hotel or campground on the eclipse path, do not worry, they have all been booked for a couple of years anyway. You can still probably find a place somewhere not too far away and simply drive to that 65-mile wide path of totality the morning of the eclipse. It is very important that you get into that path.
Maybe you are thinking it is all too much trouble and you should just simply wait until one happens right where you live. The average wait time for any particular place on earth between total eclipses is 375 years, so you might want to reconsider that option.
On the path
So let’s say you have your spot on the path of totality, here is what you will see. Shortly after 9 a.m., a tiny bite will be missing from the sun. Remember you have to wear eye protection at this point. Nothing else will seem different, and if you were not looking at the sun, you would probably not notice anything happening. Gradually, more and more of the sun will be covered and about 10 minutes before totality things start to get weird.
Look around you. Even familiar objects will appear alien. Colors will be saturated, shadows stark. Here is the only chance in your life that you can experience what it might be like to live under a different star than our sun. If you can see to the west, you might notice distant clouds and mountains turning dark. That is the shadow of the moon and it is rushing towards you at over 1,000 miles an hour.
About a minute before totality, only a thin crescent of the sun is visible. The sky will be a color that you have never seen before. Strange little snake-like shadows will wiggle across light surfaces before you. They are called shadow bands and are almost impossible to photograph so do not even bother to try. If there are trees nearby, a myriad of tiny crescent suns will dance under the leaves.
Seconds before totality, an array of dazzling lights will shine just around the rim of the moon. Known as Bailey’s Beads, they are the last bits of the sun shining between the mountains and craters on the moon. Suddenly the sun is completely hidden and you can finally remove your eye protection. A dazzling glow surrounding the now blackened sun will immediately grab your attention.
The amazing corona
Unless you have seen a previous eclipse, nothing can prepare you for the sight of our sun’s corona. Heated to over a million degrees, it is the hottest thing the human eye can see and no one really knows why it is so hot. Look for tiny tongues of flame shooting up from the blackened orb in front of the sun. Known as prominences, they are solar material being ejected tens of thousands of miles above the sun’s surface.
Just to the left of the sun, the bright star Regulus will shine in the darkened sky. Further left look for the planet Mercury. Mars will be to the right of the sun and also Venus, the brightest object in the sky besides the sun’s corona. Other bright stars will be visible also but do not spend too much time looking for them. You can see stars any old night and you only have two minutes.
Remember, you only have two minutes of time. Do you really want to be fiddling with shutter speeds and F-stops? Thousands of people will shoot pictures, many of them better than any you can take. All too soon it is over and everything preceding totality will happen again in reverse order. The shadow of the moon then races eastward to Idaho, then Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina South Carolina and then out into the Atlantic Ocean.
What quirk of nature makes this grand cosmic sight possible? We owe our good fortune to the most astounding coincidence imaginable. The moon is exactly 400 times smaller than the sun’s diameter and exactly 400 times closer to the earth than it is to the sun, making the apparent size of the sun and moon in the sky the same. If the moon were smaller or further away, it would not completely cover the sun’s disk. If it were larger or closer, the sun’s corona would be blocked out. We might be the only inhabited planet in the entire galaxy that gets to see a solar eclipse like we do.
I hope I have inspired you to consider taking a trip to Oregon this August. After all what is a little road trip down there compared to a whole galaxy? If you have any eclipse stories you might want to share, I would love to hear them. Contact me at email@example.com.