Time lapse of the total solar eclipse from November 13-14, 2012. The pink flames along the sun’s edge in totality are called prominences, while the broad halo around the silhouetted moon is the sun’s corona. You’ll have your chance at seeing this live one year from today.
One year from today, the new moon will pass directly in front of the sun, gifting U.S. skywatchers with our total solar eclipse since 1979. Yes, it’s been that long! We’ve had partial eclipses and even a couple of annular or “ring of fire” eclipses but no totals. That all changes on August 21, 2017, when the moon’s shadow will make landfall at the town of Lincoln Beach along the Oregon coast at 10:16 a.m. Pacific Time. From there it slides southeastward over Idaho, Nebraska, Illinois and Tennessee before kissing the east coast goodbye at Key Bay, South Carolina 2:49 p.m. Eastern Time.
The shadow is only so wide — about 70 miles for this eclipse — so only those living in or traveling to the path of totality will get to see a total eclipse. Keep in mind that the closer to the shadow’s centerline you are, the longer totality lasts. If you’re standing along its edge, total eclipse comes and goes in a split second. Most observers along the centerline will get to see the sun disappear for a little more than 2 minutes. As eclipses go, this is a short totality (longest lasts 7.5 minutes).
The reason the total part of an eclipse is so brief is because the moon travels quickly along its orbit. Even after subtracting Earth’s west to east rotation speed (the same direction as the moon orbits the planet), its shadow still rolls across the ground at over 1,000 mph (1,609 kph), taking just 1 hour and 33 minutes to traverse the entire continental U.S. The maximum duration of totality for this eclipse will be 2 minutes 40.1 seconds. To soak up each of those 160.1 seconds, station yourself a dozen miles southeast of Carbondale, Ill. Various factors affect the duration of totality including the moon’s distance from Earth and Earth’s distance from the sun at the time of the eclipse.
The bottom line is this. If you want to see the total solar eclipse, you’ll need to drive or fly to the shadow path, preferably as close to the centerline as possible. Fortunately, a good many cities with airports lie in the path including Nashville, Tenn.; half of St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.; Columbia and St. Joseph, Mo.; Idaho Falls, Id.; Casper, Wy.; Grand Island, Neb. and Greenville and Columbia, S.C.
It’s safe to say that millions of people will travel to experience the thrill of standing in the moon’s shadow. Those who can’t get still get a consolation prize — across the entire continental U.S. skywatchers will witness a deep partial eclipse. You might think a year in advance is too early to book a hotel room or a vacation rental, but this is America in the age of Facebook. We’re mobile, we all have cameras and for many, the eclipse will be a once-in-a-lifetime, must-see event. August is also a busy month for vacation travel.
Not all but some hotels along or within the eclipse path have already greatly increased their rates or simply not posted them yet. Several members of the family and I wanted to be sure to secure a spot, so in July my sister-in-law began calling hotels and checking out vacation rentals in our region of choice, western Nebraska, only to find out that most of the affordable rentals had already been booked. Luckily, we grabbed one in time. The few hotels posting rates wanted $250 per night. Yikes! We also secured a reservation at a reasonably priced hotel (as a backup), where the proprietor hadn’t heard about the eclipse. He was puzzled why rooms were going like hotcakes on August 20 and 21 with next to no reservations for the rest of the week. We quickly brought him up to speed.
Based on my albeit limited experience, I would strongly encourage you to make a reservation as soon as you can. When you do, keep in mind that not all regions are equal when it comes to weather. In general, the chance for clear skies at eclipse time increases as you travel west with excellent prospects from Nebraska westward (watch out for cloud-hugging mountain areas!). Western Oregon, Idaho’s Snake River Plain, Jackson Hole and Casper, Wyoming and the great plains of Nebraska are favored. Cloudiness generally increases in the eastern half of the country with the possibility for afternoon thunderstorms.
For expert weather advice in planning your moon shadow adventure, I highly recommend Jay Anderson’s state-by-state eclipse forecasts. Check it out! While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Fred Espenak’s Road Atlas for the Total Eclipse of 2017. In it you’ll find detailed maps of the eclipse path, so you can navigate to your destination or travel to another part of the path in case it’s cloudy. Weather can be unpredictable, so many will choose to check an advance forecast and just go for a long road trip into the eclipse path and then return home again the same.
While you won’t need a telescope to see the eclipse, a safe solar filter is a must. The only time you can look at the sun safely without a filter is during those couple minutes of totality when the moon covers the sun. During the remaining several hours of partial eclipse, you’ll need a pair of eclipse glasses or viewer (available from Rainbow Symphony or Eclipse2017.org) or say goodbye to your retinas. Be safe! A #14 welders glass from your local welding supply shop will also do the job. You’ll also find additional detailed eclipse information at the Great American Eclipse website.
The moon’s shadow path may be long, but because it’s so narrow, the chances of a solar eclipse happening in your city is once every 375 years. Remember the date: August 21, 2017 and make those reservations. You’ll be glad you did!