August 11, 1999 Louise and I traveled to Paris to see a total solar eclipse. The trip was our first adventure to Europe and was a wonderful adventure that helped convince us that there was much to see in the world. Our trip was a success, we saw the total eclipse briefly as the clouds parted during totality. The sight was spectacular, something that many people may live a lifetime and never experience. I had traveled with my family to Hawaii July 11, 1991 to see the total solar eclipse there. Spending the night alongside the highway in the desert on the western side of the big island, Hawaii, we were clouded out and sat through the eclipse in a light drizzle. Then, June 21, 2001 Louise and I traveled to Zambia in southern Africa to see the solar eclipse once again. It was another great adventure filled with African wildlife and many memorable experiences. Once again, we were successful and were able to observe the total eclipse of the sun. This time the sky was smoky as it was the season for burning off old crops in preparation for the coming planting season.
I describe all this to emphasize the importance many people attach to chasing the shadow of the Moon. The total eclipse is only visible when you are within the total shadow of the Moon. You can see an eclipse in the partial shadow but it will only be a partial eclipse. I would never pass up a chance to view a partial eclipse but the real prize is the total solar eclipse. The thing about a total solar eclipse is that the full shadow of the Moon from which you can view the total solar eclipse is a very narrow band. For the eclipse in Paris, it was about 70 miles wide at its widest point. The eclipse in Hawaii had a shadow width of 160 miles at its widest point. The African eclipse was almost 125 miles wide at its widest point. To experience the longest possible time in the Moon’s shadow you must be near the centerline of the path of the shadow.
Given all that, Monday, August 21, 2017 you will have a chance to see the Great American Eclipse. It has been many years since a total solar eclipse could be seen in mainland US. This eclipse will cut a swath across 12 states starting in NW Oregon at about 10:18 a.m. PDT and will exit the US at 2:48 p.m. EDT in Eastern South Carolina. Other states that will see the eclipse include Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, extreme northeastern Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, northeastern Georgia and the western North Carolina. You won’t have to travel to a distant country, this eclipse is coming to a state near you! All areas in those states won’t see totality, the shadow is only going to be 71 miles wide at its widest point. You will need detailed information to get as close to the center of the shadow as possible.
In an article on the History of FMCA from May 2004 FMCA Magazine there is a reference to a meeting of motor homes at a total solar eclipse at Hinckley School in Hinckley, Maine on July 20, 1963. Out of this gathering of 26 “coach owning families” grew the present organization. That eclipse was one of a series of eclipses in a sequence that astronomers call a Saros. From one eclipse to the next in a Saros is 18 years, 11 days and 8 hours. It happens that this eclipse was number 19 of 77 eclipses in Saros 145. Its path came onshore in North America in western Alaska, crossed Canada and exited the continent as it passed across Maine. Alaska and Maine were the only states where the total eclipse could be seen.
There have been several other eclipses in Saros, 145. In July 31, 1981 number 20 in that Saros crossed Russia. It was not visible in North America. On August 11, 1999, number 21 of Saros 145 crossed Europe, the Middle East and exited into the Indian Ocean from the eastern coast of India. Louise and I traveled to Paris, France to observe this eclipse. There were clouds around and we drove frantically across northern France looking for an opening in the clouds as totality approached. When I took a wrong turn at a roundabout and then attempted a U-turn on the road the wheels mired down in mud when I pulled onto the shoulder. We slid into a ditch. A passing couple from Belgium stopped and said (in perfect English) they would call a wrecker. We watched as the clouds parted and the partially eclipsed sun became visible. The wrecker arrived just as the shadow of the moon was within seconds of reaching us. We shared our Mylar glasses with them and then put the glasses aside to watch the total phase of the eclipse. We weren’t on the centerline but were well within the path of totality. It was our first total solar eclipse and we were hooked.
During the total eclipse the corona or outer atmosphere of the Sun becomes visible and any prominences (loops of solar material) or flares will show up. All these can be viewed without eye protection. Looking at the rest of the sky, planets and bright stars will be visible. Being aware of other circumstances, the temperature will drop as if the sun has set, birds may sing and then grow silent as they roost for the short night caused by the eclipse. Right at the beginning of the eclipse and again at the end you may observe the diamond ring, the last glint of direct sunlight through a lunar valley as the rest of the Moon is surrounded by the faint light of the corona. If you are hampered by thin clouds you may be able to watch the shadow of totality sweep across the clouds.
That brings us to the Great American Eclipse of 2017. This eclipse occurs on August 21, 2017. It is number 22 in Saros 145, 54 years and one month after the eclipse in Hinckley, Maine. This total solar eclipse will cut a swath across 12 states starting in NW Oregon at about 10:18 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time and will exit the US at 2:48 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time in eastern South Carolina. Do the math, that is about one hour and 30 minutes, coast to coast across the United States. At any given location, the eclipse will last for about two minutes to as much as 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Other states that will see the eclipse include Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, southern Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee and the northeastern tip of Georgia. All areas in those states won’t see totality, the shadow is only going to be 71 miles wide at its widest point. You will need detailed information to get as close to the center of the shadow as possible.
You should make plans to see this eclipse in person. You can watch it on TV, view it a hundred times on YouTube but there is nothing like standing in the Moon’s shadow. Everyone in the US, part of Mexico and Canada will be able to see a partial eclipse but only those in the narrow total shadow of our Moon will see the total eclipse. That path is widest and the eclipse will last longest in western Kentucky. More important will be the weather across the country. Watching weather patterns as the eclipse approaches may give you a general idea where to set up to see the eclipse. Then plan to take the toad to the actual observing point. Expect to be joined by throngs of people from around the globe who are also scrambling to see this spectacle of nature.
As the eclipse draws closer, I’ll fill in more suggestions for observing the eclipse. In the meantime, consult some of these websites to find information on your own. Some RV parks near the path of totality were already taking reservations for the time around August 21, 2017 last summer.