Eclipse Fever

Posted on August 18, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Monday will mark a milestone of celestial proportions. The swirling orbits of the sun and moon will align to produce the first total eclipse to span the entire U.S. in nearly a century, and the first to touch any portion of the country in nearly 40 years.

The last total eclipse to slide from sea to shining sea across America was in 1918, and Camden was right on the centerline path.

While none of Arkansas this time will be in the “path of totality”—that roughly 70-mile-wide shadow that will sweep over the land turning daylight into nighttime—the Natural State will get a full dose of a major partial eclipse.

In the northeast part of the state, residents are only a short drive (two to three hours or so) away from being able to see what has been repeatedly described as simply an indescribable vision.

In 1925, a total eclipse clipped the northeast U.S., and the New York Times front-page coverage was awash with superlatives about the sight.

“A Brilliant Show … Thrills Millions” the huge headline proclaimed, adding “City Halts to Gaze.” “Corona Divinely Beautiful,” one subhead read, and another reported that the watching multitude was “Awed by Jewel of Light Hanging from Luminous Ring.”

That “diamond ring” effect is visible in the totality zone, and it’s part of the “Baily’s beads” phenomenon. Those are little bright spots of light formed just prior to and just after totality in which the sun’s light is peeking around the rough edges of the moon’s surface.

Right before (and right after) the total eclipse occurs, the beads of light blink out until there is only one left, and the resulting image then resembles a ring with a single light-splashed diamond.

Most people have seen photos of total eclipses of the sun, and if you haven’t, any Internet search will return loads of them.

But the event promises to be one for which a photograph can simply not do justice. All previous witnesses attest: You have to see it to truly appreciate it. So “totality trips” are being planned with eager abandon.

Nationwide, more than 12 million people live within the path of totality, and while estimates vary about how many Americans will be driving to an “umbra site” for viewing, all predictions are in the millions.

The magnitude of the dip in workday productivity and the spike in non-rush-hour traffic jams will thus likely be momentous—as will the accompanying economic rarity of “eclipse tourism.”

From where the moon’s shadow will make landfall in Oregon to where it launches seaward again in South Carolina, towns and cities small and large will be cashing in on the cosmic spectacle. All along the totality path, hotels have been booked for months (sometimes years) and local populations are expecting to multiply, sometimes by tens of thousands.

Unassuming Casper, Wyo. (population 55,000) will be a prime watch spot, and if you happen to find an available hotel room, expect to pay well over $1,000. Some Airbnb properties are going for $5,000.

Hopkinsville, Ky., is a quiet town of 32,000, but because it will feature one of the longest eclipse durations in the nation, officials anticipate crowds totaling as many as 200,000 for Sunday and Monday. The city has been planning for eclipse traffic for five years, and the boost to the local economy might be as much as $30 million.

Nashville, Tenn., is one of the largest cities in the totality zone, and planners there are expecting a $20 million shot in the arm from overnight visitors arriving for the eclipse.

By all accounts, investing some time and money on Monday to witness the total eclipse will produce a priceless return. “It’s an experience that does not seem of this life or this world,” one astronomy author observed.

In addition to spectacular visuals—the “shadow bands” that radiate on light-colored surfaces can never be photographed, only seen by the naked eye—it’s a total-body encounter.

Because all the sun’s rays are blocked, the temperature can drop precipitously and noticeably, fooling plants and animals that night is at hand.

Seeing starlight at midday will be weird enough, but the glow from the sun’s revealed outer atmosphere is said to be odd and surreal. We normally never see solar plasma; little wonder everyone who gets a glimpse of it in the corona during an eclipse is awestruck.

There’s a siren-song aspect to eclipses, however. Their beauty belies a menacing peril: Looking at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can cause immediate, irreparable damage to your sight, and in some cases blindness. Eye safety is a must if you intend to catch the eclipse fever. Solar-film protective glasses are available lots of places; some experts prefer welding goggles.

Ironically, it is perfectly safe to remove eye protection during the brief period of total eclipse. It’s recommended, in fact; otherwise you won’t get the full extraordinary visual effect.

If it’s cloudy or you can’t make it on Monday, don’t fret. Another total eclipse will appear in 2024–and it will feature a totality path right through Arkansas.

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