Path of Totality

Columbia’s unique position for rare solar eclipse



In the year 1970, Richard Nixon was President, America was still embroiled in the Vietnam War, and Elton John was topping the pop music charts. It was also the year that the sky darkened and birds roosted in the middle of the day — all because of a solar eclipse. March 7, 1970, marks the last time that residents of South Carolina and the Southeast experienced the eerie natural phenomenon that results from the moon passing in front of the sun, and on Aug. 21, it will happen again. 

In the year 1970, Richard Nixon was President, America was still embroiled in the Vietnam War, and Elton John was topping the pop music charts. It was also the year that the sky darkened and birds roosted in the middle of the day — all because of a solar eclipse. March 7, 1970, marks the last time that residents of South Carolina and the Southeast experienced the eerie natural phenomenon that results from the moon passing in front of the sun, and on Aug. 21, it will happen again. 

TotalEclipseColumbiaSC.com, a special website, provides all the local happenings leading up to and during the eclipse. A steering committee was established to oversee Total Eclipse Weekend that involves many Columbia entities, including Columbia CVB, City of Columbia, the South Carolina State Museum, OneColumbia, and even Columbia Fireflies. Look for a Star Wars Musiclipse concert by the South Carolina Philharmonic, with costumes encouraged, and astronomy workshops, exhibitions, and lectures at the University of South Carolina.

The State Museum and its Boeing Observatory will host a weekend-long celebration leading up to the Monday eclipse, with activities, exhibitions, and shows. Apollo 16 astronaut Gen. Charles Duke is scheduled to speak Eclipse Day. 

Those interested can download a countdown app, such as Eclipse2017, on their phones or computers and determine which events and activities will fill up their own calendars. 

 

Lessons to Learn

Matthew Whitehouse, observatory manager, says the eclipse comes at a particularly significant time for the observatory as it celebrates its third anniversary in August. He and others expect the eclipse will heighten interest in science, particularly astronomy. Although a telescope will not be necessary to see the eclipse, a live online feed will track the entire Columbia eclipse from the observatory’s smaller filtered telescope; therefore, during the eclipse, the observatory will be closed. Matthew expects the museum’s front parking lot to be filled, with much activity in the museum before and after the eclipse. 

For months, he and others have been doing in-house and distance teaching about astronomy in general and about the eclipse. Matthew is in the early years of his science-focused career but, like Chap, is so fascinated with astronomy and total eclipses that he is willing to travel great distances to see them. In 2012, he experienced his first in Australia. “It was in a remote, far northeastern corner of Australia on a beach in North Queensland, and it was very dramatic. I can’t wait to see this one in Columbia.” 

Matthew teaches much of what the astronomy education and museum marketing teams have established as key points for the eclipse website, stressing that it is a monumental event because few people experience a total eclipse in their lifetimes; a partial eclipse is much different than a total eclipse; and witnessing an eclipse will be something remembered for a lifetime. 

According to the site, NASA.Gov, the moon’s craggy surface means that light rays will stream through lunar valleys along the moon’s horizon during a total solar eclipse and form “Baily’s beads” — bright points of light along the edge of the moon. These are the last sunbeams visible as the moon slips in front of the sun and the first rays to shine again as the moon uncovers it. This rough terrain also gives form and edges to the shadow, called the “umbra,” that runs across the path of totality on Earth as stray rays of sunlight peek through valleys and around mountains. As they pass over Earth’s own mountain ranges, these edges warp even more, causing the umbral shape to vary with time. It is thus not simply an ellipse shape, but an irregular polygon with slightly curved edges.

Both Matthew and Chap claim that the most dramatic part of the eclipse occurs as the moon is covering the last little piece of the sun, producing the “diamond ring” effect. Plus, stars and planets, such as Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter, become visible. “As the partial eclipse begins, the bite out of the sun gets bigger and bigger,” describes Chap. “It’s not until at least one half is covered that you can start to notice a difference in the light of the sky. The entire eclipse will last about three hours with about one and a half hours of partial eclipse, the few minutes of totality, and then another one and a half hours of partial.” 

Chap says that everyone in North America will experience a partial eclipse Aug. 21. However, only those fortunate enough to be in the path will have the privilege of seeing the total eclipse, and there is a marked difference between total coverage and even just 99 percent. “So I would suggest anyone within driving distance to the path of totality plan on getting in the car and driving there.”

What is also amazing, Chap and Matthew point out, is that during the eclipse the air eerily cools, nocturnal animals stir, and day-active animals settle. After the eclipse, birds begin chirping as if it is daybreak.

Those in cultures today and in the past who are not educated about solar eclipses often become terrified and attach all kinds of meaning to the occurrence. Some have thought eclipses are dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn children. In the 19th century, the Chinese fired canons to scare off the dragon that was eating the sun; and, in India some still think that any food eaten during the eclipse will be poisonous. Therefore, many fast that day. 

 

Seeing Safely

Despite some cultures’ fears over the eclipse, it is a safe experience if eclipse glasses are worn to view it. Regular sunglasses will not work. Not wearing proper eye gear can result in retinal burning, which can be either temporary or permanent. “That can be avoided by following one simple rule: Don’t look at the sun without proper eye protection, except during totality,” Chap strongly advises.

Contrary to a common misconception, viewers do not need to wear the eye gear during totality, as during those few minutes, the sun’s rays are obstructed from sight. The glasses are already available for purchase on his site, GoSeeTheEclipse.com, at the State Museum, and on a multitude of astronomy and eclipse sites on the internet — as well as on Amazon. Typically, glasses are around $1 per pair. On Amazon, a 10-pack is about $10. Some come with guidebooks and posters, and some designs commemorate the event. Columbia organizations and companies can also order glasses in bulk for members and employees through the TotalEclipseColumbiaSC.com site. 

Scientists everywhere are hoping for clear weather; an overcast day could affect the rays’ intensity. Better to be safe than sorry and wear the glasses, according to the general advice. Chap says to keep tabs on a weather app. “The smart phone’s weather app will be key that day.” 

He adds that if cloudy weather is forecasted for Columbia for Aug. 21, viewers should consider driving to another totality location that might be clearer as this eclipse is the last one in the United States until 2024, where the path takes a route from Mexico through Texas, Ohio, and into Canada. The next total eclipse in Columbia will not occur until 2078. 

Finally, Chap says viewers should plan ahead where they will safely view the eclipse. People with parking lots and fields should be prepared to allow viewers to hang out for a few hours. He plans to be on a hillside pool deck at the hotel where he will be staying. He will have cameras set up on tripods and a telescope with a solar filter on a stand. His goal is to take many photographs of the event. 

Matthew, of course, will be at the State Museum along with what is expected to be throngs of onlookers. 

Chap says, “There is almost a fever going through this country about this eclipse!”

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