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

 In Science
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.

As one of the who-knows-how-many, I’m concerned. Hotels and campgrounds in the best locations are already essentially full, and the “too-late zone” is expanding outward from the path of totality. Transportation options are shrinking, and prices are climbing, so even if I managed to find the perfect spot, I could run into trouble getting there.

My cousin in Charlotte, North Carolina — just 90 minutes north of totality — has kindly offered her hospitality. A round trip by train is within my means, but I’d have to rent a car for the final miles. As I worry about getting caught in gridlock, even they could become unavailable. Ugh.

South Carolina is expecting a million visitors for the eclipse, some say more. One experienced blogger wrote “We’re going down two days before, and I’m worried about even that.”

Seeing the sun’s corona during a total solar eclipse is on my bucket list, so I’ve got to try. But the specter of unpleasantness haunts me, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll get there at all. So, please don’t remind me that this is also Atlantic Coast hurricane season, OK?

My friend, eclipse veteran Ed Faits, thinks concerns are overblown: “The path of totality is 70 miles wide, and thousands of miles long” he said, “I find it hard to believe there’s not room for everybody.” Easy for him to say; he made his arrangements over a year ago. I’m sure he’ll be settled in and ready for totality as us newcomers jockey for access along the center-line where the eclipse will be deepest and last longest.

Still, I’m not panicking. By traveling farther west, I could bypass more densely populated regions and enjoy better weather prospects, but those costs quickly become prohibitive. Weighing the rising costs and dwindling prospects is proving difficult, and at this point, I’ll sleep in a car, or on the ground if I have to. Or something.

All this uncertainty caught me off-guard, and prompted a last minute change of subject for this column. Yesterday (Tuesday) marked the 20th anniversary of the Mars Pathfinder landing on July 4, 1997, and I was looking forward to sharing perspectives on our two subsequent decades of uninterrupted robotic presence at Mars. But this eclipse — if you’ll excuse the pun — over-shadowed that.

I saw my first and only total solar eclipse in 1963, when my father drove me and my four oldest siblings to Maine. After car trouble and several days of heroic effort, he got us to the edge of the path of totality, and joined those pulled over on the interstate to watch. Others continued on their merry way, strangely and inexplicably.

We made it… just barely, but our brief experience of totality was forever tainted by the headlights of a nearby parked car that came on while pointed in our faces. At our location, totality lasted only seconds, but Dad largely hid his frustration.

That was 54 years ago. The interstate highway system was in its infancy with only a fraction of today’s 46 thousand miles. People traveled, but not so freely. Cars broke down, dotting the roadsides with evidence that even modest trips involved uncertainty.

Ron Woodland remembers too. He recounted how, on the way to Mount Desert Island in Maine for the same 1963 eclipse, his 1953 Plymouth was losing power. “It might have been a bad head gasket” he said. “I was really concerned that that we wouldn’t see the eclipse, but the old car held out.”

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