How and where to watch the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse
At approximately 10:04 a.m. on Aug. 21, Lincoln City, Ore., will go dark as the moon blots out the sun before what is being called the Great American Eclipse passes southeast across 13 other states, terminating when daylight re-emerges over Charleston, S.C. several hours later.
This will be the first total solar eclipse — when the moon completely blocks the sun’s light — over the United States since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast eclipse since June 1918, when the outcome of World War I was still in doubt.
All of the country will experience some degree of the eclipse, but the nation’s eyes are on the path of totality, that 70-mile-wide strip from Oregon to South Carolina in which the sun will be totally obscured. Colorado isn’t in the path — Coloradoans’ best bets to see the full eclipse are in Wyoming and Nebraska — but in the Centennial State it’ll look like the sun had a big bite taken out of it. The eclipse will last less than three minutes in a given location, but those in and near its path have been preparing for much longer.
According to GreatAmericanEclipse.com, about 87 million people live in the path of totality or within a 200-mile drive of it, giving this the makings of a logistical nightmare.
“Wyoming is predicting that its population will double,” said Jared Fiel, the regional communications director for the Colorado Department of Transportation. “(Interstate) 25 and U.S. 85 will both be fairly affected. We’re not estimating how much, but just know that it’s a lot.”
Indeed, in Casper and Grand Teton National Park, two of the areas expected to attract numerous people from Colorado and elsewhere, hotel rooms and campsites have already nearly run out of space. A quick search of Airbnb on Friday showed the average price for a room in Casper over the eclipse weekend is $1,409; the same day, according to Expedia, 95 percent of Casper’s hotel rooms were booked. All of Grand Teton’s campsites have been reserved.
“Trying to go up the day of is not a good plan because traffic is gonna be a nightmare,” Charles Kuehn, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Northern Colorado, said. “Go up at least on Sunday, preferably on Saturday.”
The lesson, if you’re a Coloradoan who wants to watch the eclipse, is to leave early and find someplace off the beaten path. Kuehn recommended looking at Bureau of Land Management sites in Wyoming, as their camping regulations are more relaxed than in national parks and there are more sites that are filling less quickly.
Alternatively, Coloradoans could go to Nebraska, where towns such as Scotsbluff and North Platte are within the path of totality, but Kuehn said that NASA predicts more eclipse-obscuring cloud cover further east.
Wherever you see the eclipse from, you’ll be witnessing something incredibly rare. The moon’s orbit around the earth is titled by about 5 degrees, leaving only two times a year when the moon could possibly be in the proper phase and in the right position to block the sun. Two-thirds of the time, it’s not, and there’s only a partial eclipse. Combine that with the fact that water covers 71 percent of the earth’s surface, and most eclipses occur partially or entirely over the ocean.
This gives astronomers unique opportunities for research. Total eclipses are the only time the corona, the hottest, outermost layer of the sun, is visible; the light we see comes from the photosphere, the second outermost layer that is 100 times cooler than the corona but a million times brighter. Studying the corona is critical in understanding solar flares and storms, which create beautiful phenomena like the Northern Lights but can also disrupt satellite communications. Astronomers can artificially block the photosphere by placing disks on their telescopes, but eclipses provide the clearest view.
Citizen scientists also are contributing to research around the country. The California Institute of Science is conducting a study on plant and animal behavior during the eclipse to verify or refute the anecdotal evidence that flora and fauna exhibit nighttime behavior during an eclipse. It’s asking people within and outside of the path of totality to record plant and wildlife behavior near them.
Then there’s GLOBE Observer, an app designed by NASA that lets people record atmospheric changes around them. It’ll have special options for users to record air and surface temperatures before, during and after the eclipse, along with changes in wind and humidity. You don’t have to be in the path of totality to use it and collect useful data.
Or, if you don’t want to research, Wyoming and Nebraska are calling. Leave early, drive safely, protect your eyes (see sidebar) and, in Kuehn’s words, “just watch and enjoy the experience.”
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