BOB DUKE PHOTO
BOB DUKE PHOTO
Sometime before Aug. 21, millions of people in the United States will fill their cars with at least three days supply of water, food, clothing, cash and other miscellaneous survival gear, fill the tank and take to the road. No, it’s not a drill. People won’t be jamming the highways and byways to escape a natural disaster. Indeed, they may be heading straight into one.
The natural event is the “Great American Eclipse,” a two minute-long, awe inspiring spectacle of nature and physics that occurs when the sun completely blocks the moon, creating a haloed hole in a star studded, black daytime sky. The 70-mile wide, 2,500 mile long eclipse path will begin north of Newport, Oregon at 10:15 a.m. and end at the Atlantic coast near Charleston, South Carolina 3 hours 13 minutes later. It’s the first total solar eclipse to begin and end entirely within the continental United States. There is plenty of room inside this approximately 175,000 square mile path for every man, woman and child in the U.S. to stand, shoulder to shoulder, and get a great view. Will this be an experience of a lifetime, or a man-made disaster? All of North America will experience a partial eclipse, millions will stay home, content with a partial phase. At 95.5 to 97.3 percent obscured, the eclipse will be spectacular in Southwest Washington, just not nearly as much.
Millions on the move
An estimated 12.25 million people already live in the path, and millions more live within easy reach. With an influx from Denver, Glendo, Wyoming’s population will increase by 50,000 percent, according to a Smithsonian story. One of the preferred towns in all of the U.S. is Madras, Ore, east of Portland, on Hwy 26. Touted by many publications as the most likely place to experience favorable weather, this quiet, agricultural community of under 7,000 people is expecting 100,000 eclipse viewers to descend upon them days in advance. All motels and campgrounds within miles of the path have been booked months in advance. Local landowners have turned their acreage into makeshift, and expensive, campgrounds. Services will be strained. One has to wonder if enough port-a-potties have even been built.
It may not be all that bad. Anyone who thinks a small town can’t handle large, party minded revelers has not been to Ocean Park during Fourth of July weekends, or Rod Run. Madras has had years to prepare. The city has arranged numerous parking areas, shuttle buses to public viewing areas, and as of this writing, their webpage madraseclipse.com boasts of many available campsites. They even have room, it says, for “day trippers,” those who make that last-minute decision to jump in the car and go. And yes, sleeping in your car the night before is allowed.
Many organizations have prepared special eclipse tours, combining popular features of the Pacific Northwest like the fossil beds east of Madras with accommodations and professional eclipse guides. This writer will join Lowell Observatory from Flagstaff, Arizona. They are providing parking, a prime viewing spot, science lectures and special sun-viewing glasses. They will even narrate the event, so nothing will be missed during the fleeting 2 minute, 3 seconds of totality.
Missing it isn’t an option
For lifelong, die-hard amateur astronomers like myself, staying home isn’t an option. Often billed as a mystical, even religious experience, eclipses attract soul seekers of all faiths, as well as scientists both amateur and professional. And then there are simply the curious. Lots of them. We will all go for one reason. A total solar eclipse is an experience like no other. And the difference between 95.5 to 97.3 percent, the percent of the eclipse as viewed from the Long Beach peninsula, or even 99.9 percent, is phenomenal. To settle for less than total would be like going to the Super Bowl and spending the day in the parking lot.
With 95.6 percent of the sun covered, the light shining through is still 44,000 times brighter than the corona, that incredible halo of sunlight visible only during eclipse. The corona is only one of the amazing wonders that can only be witnessed during a total eclipse, all of them transcending superlatives. There’s the approach of the moon’s shadow, or umbra, at nearly 3,000 miles per hour. Or the “shadow bands,” ripples in the shadow caused by the twinkling of a fading sun. When darkness falls, stars come out, and a 360 degree “sunset” extends around the horizon. Baily’s Beads occur when sunlight sneaks between the moon’s mountains, and, perhaps the most stunning act of the entire show, the “diamond ring” effect, a flash of light at the edge of a darkened sun that signals the beginning and end of totality.
But for many, the reasons for staying home outweigh the curiosity. Those who do will still be treated to the deepest partial solar eclipse of a lifetime. Even though most of the sun will be eclipsed, everyone needs to take the same precautions as with any partial eclipse. Namely, don’t look directly at the sun! First contact, when the moon takes the first bite out of the sun, occurs at 9:05 a.m. At 11:37, the moon will leave the face of the sun. For everyone on the North American continent NOT occupying the 70-mile-wide eclipse path, there is one rule to follow; don’t look at the sun without proper protection.
The best option for viewing the partial phase is to project the sun’s image onto paper. Numerous Internet sites offer plans for pinhole projectors and many ingenious methods for viewing the partial eclipse safely. And, according to Astronomy magazine, it is safe to view the sun’s reflection off of water. Another option is to purchase special eclipse glasses. Locally, they are available at Coastal Eye Care in Long Beach, Astoria and Seaside, and Jack’s Country Store in Ocean Park. Don’t try and make your own using material not certified as safe. Space blankets and smoked glass is not safe. (See related story.)
In addition to possible eye damage, there are other dangers to consider. If traveling during the 3.5 hour partial phase, beware the distracted driver. An eclipse isn’t visually noticeable, due to our eyes adjusting to the gradual decrease in light, until 50 percent of the sun is obscured. As it reaches 90 percent, people will want to see what’s going on. Hopefully, everyone will safely pull over to the side of the road. And in case this really needs to be said, don’t wear eclipse glasses while driving. Wildfire danger cannot be overstated. A dropped cigarette or heat from exhaust could have very regrettable results.
A bit of expert advice
For those planning on making the dive into the lifetime experience of totality, here is some advice. There is a lot to experience, and two minutes is a very short time. Don’t do anything or take anything with you that will distract you from the wonder of the event. Forget the telescope and camera. There will be plenty of photos taken by professionals available later. Just bring your soul and let it all soak in. A good way to photograph the event is to use a video recorder. Many cameras have video capability. Set the camera up on a tripod, point it at the horizon and let it run for a half hour before, during and after totality. Your incredible experience, and the reaction of others in your party, will be recorded without the fuss of fiddling with equipment during those precious two minutes.
For many in the local area of SW Washington, the best option for those without previous arrangement is to get on I-5, preferably the day before, and drive south to the zone of totality around Salem and Albany. Oregon has decided to call out the National Guard to help control the traffic, and Salem has opened up the parks and open areas to the public for overnight camping. So pack your car with three days of emergency supplies, fill up with gas, and hit the road! Do you really want to miss it?