By BRENNA GRITEMAN
There’s a lot of hype about Monday’s total solar eclipse, dubbed “The Great American Solar Eclipse.”
Considering a total solar eclipse’s rarity, all the fanfare may be justified.
The total eclipse will occur along a path from Oregon to South Carolina, while a partial eclipse will be visible in northwestern Ohio.
“Total solar eclipses are very rare for an observer who remains in a fixed location on Earth, with about one every 370 years, on average,” explained Jason Pinkney, Ohio Northern University professor of physics and astronomy. “The last time a path of totality for a solar eclipse crossed the United States from coast to coast was 1918. The last time a solar eclipse crossed part of the nation was in 1991, in Hawaii.”
On Monday, the “path of totality” referenced by Pinkney will be an eastward progressing, 70-mile-wide streak from Oregon to South Carolina. The moon’s shadow will move across the United States at over 1,000 mph and, in its path, total darkness will fall for as long as 2 minutes, 38 seconds.
Ohio is not in the path of totality, although Pinkney notes that every U.S. resident will be able to observe at least a partial eclipse Monday.
Unless it rains.
“If it rains, you’re just sort of out of luck,” he said.
In northwestern Ohio, the sun will be covered about 85 percent.
“For viewers in Ada, the moon will make its first contact with the sun around 1:03 p.m., will reach its maximum eclipse around 2:28 p.m., and its last contact around 3:50 p.m.,” said Pinkney, who is also manager of the ONU observatory.
The observatory will welcome the public from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday with at least three telescopes available, along with standard eclipse glasses, pinhole projection viewers, and a screen projector.
Pinkney said many people have never had the opportunity to examine the sun, and those who do so safely can observe sunspots, solar flares and prominences on its surface.
Simply speaking, Pinkney explained the science behind a solar eclipse:
Picture the planet Earth, the sun and the moon as spherical objects in space, with the sun much larger than both the Earth and the moon. The Earth revolves around the sun, while the moon rotates around the Earth.
“It takes three to tango, as far as a solar eclipse is concerned,” Pinkney said.
When the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, the sun’s rays fail to pass through an object as opaque as the moon. The moon casts a shadow onto the Earth, and those in the path of totality are in the center of the moon’s shadow as it hits our planet.
Pinkney noted that a solar eclipse can only happen during a new moon phase, which occurs every lunar cycle, or approximately every 28 days. For a total eclipse to take place, the sun, moon and Earth must be in a direct line.
So even though the moon passes between the Earth and the sun every lunar cycle, creating the monthly new moon phase, the shadow cast does not always reach the Earth due to our planet and the moon operating on different planes.
Science and math say there are two “eclipse seasons” a year, occurring every 5.7 months, creating a minimum two solar eclipses annually, each visible in a very limited area.
Not every solar eclipse is a “total solar eclipse,” however. There’s also the “partial” eclipse, during which the three bodies don’t align in a perfectly straight line, meaning the moon casts only the outer part of its shadow; an “annular” eclipse, when the moon covers the sun’s center, leaving the sun’s visible outer edges to form a ring (or annulus) around the moon; and a “hybrid” eclipse, which changes its appearance as the moon’s shadow moves across the Earth’s surface.
An eclipse brings with it the opportunity to view several solar and celestial realities not usually visible to the average person, Pinkney said.
The sun’s corona, for instance, the “halo” which is part of its outer atmosphere, is visible during an eclipse, as is the chromosphere, the pink edges circling the sun. The “diamond ring” effect can be seen at the beginning and end of an eclipse, while the planet Mercury, usually too close to the sun to discern, also comes into view.
Scientists across the country will use the eclipse to study these points of interest and more, and will piece together information gathered from many U.S. cities, Pinkney said.
The Associated Press reports a NASA research plane will carry the agency’s science director as it flies from Boeing Field in Seattle to capture the first video of the total solar eclipse. The video will be part of a livestream on NASA TV that tracks the eclipse along its 2,500-mile path from Oregon to South Carolina.
Superstition and strange behavior
A total solar eclipse is the most awe-inspiring of eclipses, and brings with it the most public interest.
“Totality really is amazing. It’s quite a bit better than the partial that we’ll be able to experience here at ONU,” Pinkney said.
Pinkney was studying astronomy in graduate school during the 1991 total solar eclipse, and traveled from his campus in Arizona to view the event in Mazatlan, Mexico.
“I went down there and set up on the beach to watch,” he said, recalling the street lights coming on as if it were night, and the temperature dropping up to 5 degrees.
Animals and humans alike have been known to act peculiarly during a total solar eclipse.
One YouTube video shows chickens returning to their coop to roost during a 2015 eclipse in the Faroh Islands, with a confused rooster crowing as the sun reappears minutes later.
Eclipse watchers have reported to National Geographic instances in which dairy cows have returned to their barns, crickets began chirping and whales breached in the seas.
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, early Chippewa Indians shot flaming arrows into the sky to try to rekindle the sun. Tribes in Peru did the same, hoping to scare off a beast believed to be attacking the sun.
Soldiers in Cambodia reportedly shot bullets into the air as recently as 1995, hoping to scare a mythic dragon from the sky.
And in 1991, astronomers in Baja, California, witnessed the “weeping and wailing” of hotel staff who were “terrified by the onset of darkness.”
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