Patrick Rowan’s Skywatch: North American solar eclipse of 2017 –

The moon will completely block the midday sun along a track bisecting the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on Aug. 21.

The Great North American Solar Eclipse of 2017 will be the first coast-to-coast solar eclipse in 99 years, and the first visible solely from the U.S. Here in Greater Springfield, for the first time in a generation, more than 70 percent of the sun will be eclipsed.

Totality is the holy grail of eclipses, and an unparalleled skywatching event. The brighter stars and planets come out in the daytime, and the solar corona — the sun’s extended atmosphere — becomes visible in all it’s glory — no telescopes or eye protection needed.

Photographs can’t convey the nuanced beauty of the corona’s filament structure. Ron Woodland, a local astronomy educator who has witnessed several solar eclipses, called totality “the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Nothing compares with it.”

About 200 million people are within a day’s drive of the path of totality, and many will travel from farther, including skywatchers and amateur astronomers from Western Mass, and around the world. Occurring in the middle of the day during prime summer vacation season, this could easily become the most viewed total eclipse in world history.

With unknown numbers rushing in, this will be a mammoth cultural experiment, and a secondary story-line has developed. Here’s a hint: Firm up your eclipse travel plans quickly.

As interest grows and more people make plans to go, the potential for traffic jams and associated issues increases. Those worries provoke further news coverage and alert many who otherwise might not have noticed. Some will want to see what all the commotion is about. By planning trips, they’ll help fuel a classic feedback loop, causing the situation to snowball.

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