Laura Sparks has been waiting for Aug. 21, 2017 for more than 10 years.
When she switched majors from physics to astronomy in 2006 and started learning about eclipses, Sparks marked her mental calendar for 11 years in the future, to what has been dubbed, “The Great American Eclipse.”
Now the time has finally arrived. For about a brief time on Monday morning, along a large swath of the United States stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, the sun will appear to go out, completely hidden behind the moon. Encompassing parts of 14 states, this key zone has been dubbed “The Path of Totality.” Anyone within this 70-mile wide path will experience a total eclipse of the sun. The rare celestial event means that people are hitting the road in huge numbers this week to find their place not in the sun, but in the vast shadow. Sonoma County residents can expect about 80 percent of the sun to be obscured just before 10:15 a.m. Monday morning.
Sparks, who teaches astronomy at Santa Rosa Junior College, will be among those making the trek to be in the path of totality.
“Lunar eclipses are more common. When a lunar eclipse happens, you can see it from anywhere on earth, that is, at night,” she said. “The whole half of the planet gets to see a lunar eclipse. But with a solar eclipse, you have to be in the right place.”
Sparks has pinpointed Madras, Oregon, a tiny dot on the map east of the Cascades that has been identified as one of the top viewing spots in the path. Set in the high desert of central Oregon, the small town, population 6,200, will be cast in 2.02 minutes of darkness, An estimated 100,000 people are expected to flow into the town, which is freeing up parks, parking lots and farms for the hordes of eclipse-seekers.
“I’ve never seen a total solar eclipse in my whole life,” said the 36-year-old Sparks, who has booked a tiny wedge of camping space in a Little League field. “We humans take a lot of things for granted subconsciously, and one of those things is the constancy of the moon and the sun. When the sun goes completely dark in the daytime, you can describe it to people. But it affects people in a way they maybe wouldn’t expect.”
What makes this solar eclipse even more unique is that it can be viewed by such a massive area of the United States.
Lunar eclipses are fairly common and are widely experienced by an entire hemisphere at nighttime. But a complete solar eclipse is more rare. And this particular eclipse is rendered even more rare because it will be visible to such a large area of the United States, cutting diagonally across the continent, coast to coast. The last total eclipse in the U.S. was 26 years ago and was visible in Hawaii only. The last total eclipse to pass through the Continental United States was in 1979.
If you haven’t already booked your accommodations in The Path of Totality — all state park campgrounds in Oregon are full and campsites in hot spots like Madras are going for $300 and up on eBay — you’re not necessarily out of luck. Private landowners and farmers, whether good Samaritans or seeing a good financial opportunity, are freeing up space for temporary campsites on their properties or in their parking lots.
Tips for Eclipse Watching
For more PD coverage of the eclipse go here
Sonoma County residents will be privy to a partial eclipse, and can expect about 80 percent of the sun to be obscured, just before 10:15 a.m. on Monday, August 21.
— Safety First: You can do serious permanent damage to the retina of the eye if you look at the sun without a special solar filter or glasses. It can lead to blindness. Homemade filters or even multiple layers of sunglasses, will not protect your eyes. Use special certified safe “eclipse glasses” or solar viewers. Glasses certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), have gotten hard to find. Beware of fakes. Amazon has issued a recall of potentially fake glasses. The American Astronomical Society has issued a list of reliable dealers of safe glasses at Eclipse.aas.org/resources/solar-filters. Some major chains like 7-Eleven, Lowe’s and Walmart, were selling them. NASA recommends eclipse views make sure the ISO certification number 12312-2 and the manufacturer’s address are printed on your viewing glasses.
— Lenses need filters too: You will also need special solar filters to view the eclipse through a telescopes, binoculars or a camera. The filter will both protect the lens from intense sunlight and ensure you don’t accidentally look at the sun through an unfiltered instrument. Lenses make things brighter so they will intensify an already searing level of light without a filter. Alas, solar filters have also become hard to find. Shutterbug camera shops in Sonoma County have completely sold out of all solar filters for telescopes, binoculars and cameras, and reports that manufacturers also have depleted their inventory so they are unlikely to receive any new shipments.
— Clouds, on Monday morning, will not be your friend. So to increase your odds of a clear view, take a hike. There is no way however, of predicting how high you’ll have to go to get above the fogline since it can vary depending on the morning.
— Tree Filters: NASA astrophysicist Lynn Cominsky, who teaches at Sonoma State, suggests finding a tree and using its leaves as a filter. During the eclipse, observe the shadows on the ground beneath the tree. The leaves will act like a pinhole camera, projecting little crescent images onto the ground. Better yet, find a tree beside a wall and watch the crescents projected onto the surface like a screen.
— Unplug: SRJC astronomy teacher Laura Sparks recommends unplugging from your computer and smart phone. Instead of worrying about capturing the event for social media, ditch the distractions and just experience the moment.
— Watch the eclipse live online from the Path of Totality at NASA.org.