Chasing Totality: The Case For Dropping All To See the Solar Eclipse

"Eerie" is one word for it. "Awe-inspiring" also comes to mind. Credit: Getty Images

While total solar eclipses happen regularly — about every 18 months — it’s been nearly 100 years since an eclipse traveled from coast-to-coast across North America. That means the full eclipse is going to be in the backyard of 12.2 million Americans. But don't count yourself out just yet. About half of the nation is within 400 miles of the path of totality and every American (and most Canadians) in the lower 48 are within at most a two-day drive. Take it from us, it’s worth the effort to get in the path of totality. 

“A total solar eclipse is one of the most dramatic events in nature and it’s something one never forgets and it’s the only time you’ll be able to see the atmosphere of the sun," says Laurance Doyle, a principal investigator and astrophysicist at SETI who has now seen six total eclipses. "It’s also an opportunity to witness the awesome power of the universe for such things to happen.” Not yet convinced? Doyle walked us through the experience and got us, well, stoked to witness the heavens fade to black. Here, in detail, is how it all goes down. 

The Build-Up

The eclipse itself is going to take some time. In Oregon, where the shadow of the moon will first hit land, the sliver of the sun will start to go missing around 9:04 AM PDT. The start of the total eclipse there doesn’t happen until over an hour later at 10:15 AM. Then, totality lasts two minutes. On the far end of the spectrum across the country in South Carolina, it will take the moon an hour and a half to cover the sun and totality will be 2 minutes and 34 seconds. The greatest duration of totality at 2 minutes 40 seconds will be in Illinois (not to be confused with the point of greatest eclipse in Kentucky).

Aside from noticing the little nick taken out of the disk of the sun, the first hour or so of the eclipse doesn’t really have much effect here on earth. But once the moon has covered about half of the sun is when some changes start to happen. Shadows of leaves will be the first to reveal that an eclipse is in progress. The shadows will show the crescent shape missing from the sun. This is from the same principle behind viewing the eclipse through a pin-hole camera. This moment will be available to everyone across the country during the partial phase.

The magic really starts about 15 minutes before totality, when the quality of light on earth starts to change. Everything gets darker and darker minute-by-minute. If you’re standing with a crowd, you’ll start to hear gasps and "ahhs" as people start to notice the change and the temperature starts to drop. If you’re somewhere with observable wildlife like birds, they will start to go quiet as they notice the odd change of light.

About two minutes out from totality, things start to get surreal. It’s no longer day, but not yet like night. It’s not like dawn or dusk. It's an eclipse. Depending on the atmospheric conditions the sky can start to display some unique colors. And if you’re up high on a mountain or have a good view of mountains to the west, you might be able to see the edge of the moon’s shadow moving across the land. It will be moving fastest in Oregon — where it flies over land at around 2,400 mph. By the time it reaches South Carolina it will have slowed to 1,400 mph. Out in the Pacific ocean before it gets to Oregon it is flying at over 27,000 mph.

Another unique phenomenon that can happen just before and after totality are shadow bands. These are faint and mostly noticeable on smooth, flat and light colored surfaces. They dance around and are best compared to the shadows seen on the bottom of a swimming pool. 

Finally, in the last seconds before totality, watch closely (with your solar goggles on) for Baily’s Beads. This is when the last rays of sunlight are sneaking between the mountains on the perimeter of the surface of the moon.

The Total Experience

And then it is dark. Totality. This phase is known as Second Contact (First Contact is when the disk of the moon first appears on the very edge of the disk of the sun). This is the time you can take off your eclipse glasses and look up to see the corona of the sun, the aura of plasma that is essentially the atmosphere of the sun. You can even use a pair of binoculars or a telescope to get a really intimate look. It will probably be as otherworldly of an experience as you will ever have.

Craig Tupper from NASA experienced totality for the first time in 1998 on Curacao Island. The four minutes of totality wasn’t nearly enough. “We didn’t want it to end.” he says. “The shadow bands were fascinating because it’s such a unique phenomena and is highly dependent on the atmospheric conditions. It was really eerie. Then, there are the solar prominences, or flares. These can appear as deep red spots along the edge of the moon once the moon is totally obscuring the sun.”

For this coming eclipse, only one question remains, who's driving?


If you truly can't get yourself out into the path of totality, we'll be live-streaming the eclipse with physicists at hand to answer your questions. To see it, simply follow us on Facebook (facebook.com/mensjournal) and hit us with all your questions in the comments when we go live on August 21.