Category Archives: Eclipses

The Traffic Jam They Don’t Talk About


This coming Monday, August 21st, is the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to pass through a large part of the United States since 1979 and the first coast-to-coast American total solar eclipse since the Woodrow Wilson administration.

The narrow zone of totality crosses from Oregon to South Carolina.  And many eclipse observers who can afford it and can get the time off will travel to the area.  As predicted, the airlines have jacked up their fares substantially.  Other observers will drive to the path of totality.  Even if they get to the path ahead of time, in most cases, they will have to drive quite a bit more to dodge cloud cover.


The interstates may not be the only superhighway clogged with eclipse traffic.

If lots of eclipse observers do this simultaneously, there will be huge traffic jams on the highways reminiscent of what happens with those mandatory evacuations that they have for coastal storms.  But, aside from the photo illustration, this post will concentrate on the other traffic jam – the one nobody talks about as well as how effective a possible remedy would actually be.


It has been known for quite some time that NASA-TV will be having quite a bit of coverage of this event.  Sounds like a good idea.  But due to the fact that very few, if any, cable services and only one satellite network carry NASA-TV (the reasons for this will be the topic of a future post), this means that NASA-TV is pretty much an Internet-only TV channel.  This works under normal conditions, but is a major problem for events like the eclipse.  For those who are a bit unfamiliar with how the Internet works, NASA-TV uses web servers to put their content online.  And these servers can only handle up to a certain number of people hooking up to them to view the content.  As the number of people viewing increases, the performance of the server in delivering the content deteriorates.  If the number gets high enough, it malfunctions.  Historically, this has happened to NASA quite often during major events.  Not surprisingly since their computer hardware, like everything else, was put in by the lowest bidder on a government contract.  While this isn’t too bad for rockets as the engineers at those contractors work with physical things and they generally do a reasonably good job building rockets, when it comes to computers, those people are a different breed.  In physical engineering, it is common practice to build things a bit stronger than they actually need to be so there is some reserve capacity and also to cope with the unexpected.  However, when it comes to web servers, computer people tend to go with the minimum capacity for the job.  It would be better if they followed what I call “The Roebling Rule” (named in honor of the Roebling company that built the Brooklyn Bridge).  They insisted that, if a part on the bridge was supposed to support one ton, it had to be able to support six to ten tons.  As a result, the Brooklyn Bridge is a sturdy structure that is still around today.  Another company built a similar bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, but was told to keep the budget down.  Due to the corners that were cut, the bridge had to be replaced years later at enormous cost.

The other online eclipse coverage sites also suffer from the small server problem.  The Exploratorium in San Francisco has done eclipse coverage in the past and has had problems.  Compounding things are their rather amateurish production skills.

On top of all this, those people who do not have broadband Internet or have metered bandwidth (only so many gigabytes per month) will have problems accessing the online coverage.

If only there was a way to get video coverage of the eclipse that didn’t depend on bandwidth and server issues and can handle any number of viewers… wait, such a technology does exist and we have had it for years… television!

While this eclipse is well suited for television coverage as it does pass through quite a few cities and towns in the United States, the response from the mainstream (referred to hereafter as “lamestream” to use a term coined by Jim Kurdyla of Facebook fame) media has been extremely underwhelming.  The remainder of this post will discuss the TV eclipse options known to me as of the moment of this writing.  Some of this information may be subject to change.  Here goes…

One would expect that the lamestream broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, and PBS) would have an interest in this.  Sadly, that interest appears to be rather small.

ABC: This network was probably the first national broadcast network to announce eclipse coverage.  The show will feature Sara Haines, Rebecca Jarvis, T.J. Holmes, Ginger Zee, Matt Gutman, David Kerley, Nick Watt, Adrienne Bankert, and Eva Pilgrim.  I suppose if you crammed all their astronomical knowledge together, you might get something equivalent to an entry-level amateur astronomer.  There are reports that some affiliates will go above and beyond this.

CBS: The national network seems to be taking the wimpy way out on this one.  They will only be having coverage online.  Some affiliates, mainly those along the path of totality, may take matters into their own hands.  One reason given by some wags is that CBS doesn’t want to preempt their daytime programming at eclipse time.  This consists of two daytime dramas (News flash: Daytime drama is a dying genre) and “The Talk”  Guess they don’t want to preempt “The Talk” or it might get Les Moonves in trouble with the wife at home.

Fox: Unknown.  They might decide to leave it up to affiliates.

NBC: Evidently realizing what ABC is doing, NBC will be doing a one-hour national show as well.  It will be hosted by Al Roker, Lester Holt, and Dylan Dreyer.  Not ideal, but it is better than CBS and Fox.  Wonder how these astronomical lightweights will manage?

PBS: Some PBS stations (not all) will be carrying a one hour program titled “Total Eclipse Live”.  I have no further details on it.  But, later that evening, PBS will show its talent for after-the-fact coverage of astronomical events with a special episode of “Nova” that will incorporate some footage from that day’s eclipse.  This is a rather rapid turnaround since it usually takes a few weeks at least for the “Nova” crew to put together something on an astronomical event.  As with the other networks, some affiliates might do something on their own.

Eclipse coverage is a lot like the Emmy awards in the fact that cable channels trounce the broadcast ones.

The Science Channel: This network is going to cover the eclipse completely in a program called “The Great American Eclipse”.  And in a departure from what the commercial broadcasters are doing, this program will be hosted by actual astronomers.  And, if that isn’t enough, there will be a recap show that evening.

The Weather Channel: The one channel on just about every cable system is doing quite a bit of coverage on eclipse day.  Their special “Total Solar Eclipse” will feature coverage from all over the eclipse track as well as from a ship off South Carolina.  And they are prepared.  In the event of bad weather at any location, NASA-TV coverage will be used as backup.

Of course, this information may be subject to change between now and the eclipse.  So, if you can’t see totality or are clouded out, keep an eye on the TV listings.  But, if you are where the eclipse is visible, don’t forget to see it for yourself (using proper safety methods).

Are Eclipse Pundits Out of Touch?

As most people (at least the intelligent people who read blogs like this one) are aware, there will be a major total solar eclipse on August 21st, 2017.  This will be the first total solar eclipse to cross a large portion of the United States since 1979.

There are also a number of people and websites promoting this event and discussing many aspects of the upcoming eclipse.  Some of these experts are undoubtedly well known to those who follow space science.  While they go on and on about how communications have improved since 1979 and how the social media we have now was not around back then, there is one major change in our society that these eclipse pundits have ignored, willingly or otherwise.


This condition is true of quite a few people who would like to observe the total phase of the eclipse

The eclipse pundits, in their effort to show off their calculation skills as well as sell safe solar viewers, maps of the eclipse path, eclipse books, and other related chotchke, have failed to realize that the ranks of the working poor have swollen since 1979.  A very large and growing number of the American public is poorer now than they were in 1979.  What does this have to do with the eclipse, they might ask?  Quite a bit.

While most of the country lives within several hundred miles or so of the path of totality, weather prospects are not equally good along the whole length of the path.  If one wants a reasonable guarantee of the weather, they have to go out west to states like Oregon (the eastern part), Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska.  Unfortunately, if most people want to get to those destinations in a reasonable span of time, that means flying.  And, in addition to the airline industry abuses that have made it into the news recently, flying is a major hassle and is very expensive (as I wrote in my previous eclipse post, I predict airfares will experience a sharp upward spike just before the eclipse).  Add the other associated expenses, flying to see the eclipse will cost quite a bit, possibly beyond the reach of observers who aren’t well off.

Then there is the option of driving.  While it is flexible, it does have some downsides.  For one, the range is considerably limited and it takes quite a bit of time to cover significant distance.  And, given the fact that when one reaches their destination, weather prospects could force them to drive even further, possibly hundreds of miles. This makes it a bit difficult for some working poor to figure out how much time to budget for an eclipse trip.  While some have paid vacation time they can take (they still need to figure out how much time an eclipse trip would need), others do not have that luxury.  In other words, they can take the time off, but they won’t get paid for it.  In that case, they would have to balance how much pay they can afford to lose with the other costs of an eclipse trip.  Don’t count on being able to reduce the time of an eclipse trip by speed.  In addition to the likely traffic congestion on major roads leading to the track of totality, it is very likely that local and state law enforcement anywhere near the path of totality will be out in full force looking for anyone who puts the pedal to the metal as well as anyone who puts in marathon driving sessions (the police can bust people for driving tired).  And, according to posts on some eclipse forums, parking regulations will be very strictly enforced as well.  Another factor that has to be considered is the price of gas.  I would not be surprised to see a major upsurge in the price of gas around eclipse.  The people who run oil companies may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night.  It is very unlikely that these companies are totally unaware of the eclipse.  Since most cars can only go about 200+ to about 300 or so miles on a tank of gas, there could be several fill ups involved in an eclipse road trip.

This discussion of time brings up another issue: accomodations.  Already there have been numerous reports of motels engaging in price gouging for accomodations anywhere near the path of totality.  Expect to hear more as time goes on.

Now, how do the eclipse pundits propose on dealing with these problems, if they even acknowledge them at all?  One solution that has been proposed smacks of the logic Marie Antoinette was said to have used when she was informed of the bread shortage in Paris (and supposedly uttered “Let them eat cake”).  Some pundits have proposed that people get RVs (Recreational Vehicles).  This ignores the obvious facts that RVs are very expensive vehicles and tend to have rather poor gas mileage.  They also do not consider that an RV can’t generally be parked just any old place when used for the purpose of lodging.  That means one also has to find an appropriate place to stop, something that might be scarce in the days before the eclipse.  Yes, I have learned that it is possible to rent RVs, but that isn’t terribly cheap and might be daunting to someone who is unfamiliar with RVs.

Another proposal is that people camp.  While this does get around the enormous cost of the RV suggestion, it has some problems of its own.  You just can’t pitch your tent anywhere.  Several years back, there was this little old thing known as OWS (Occupy Wall Street)* where a number of people pitched tents in Zucotti Park in New York City and caused much consternation with the city government.  Also, in recent years, there have been a number of occasions where homeless people have set up tents in spots that were not considered appropriate.  Local governments have undoubtedly learned from those events and naturally restrict camping to certain areas, mostly campgrounds that have been set aside for such purposes.  And with such areas, one needs reservations.  If you have to change plans due to the weather, there goes whatever you spent on the reservation (that would also apply to anyone who books a motel).  Even if you are able to camp, there is the obvious lack of amenities and that could be an issue for those who are unfamiliar with camping.  (* The Occupy Wall Street reference is for historical purposes only.  This blog does not necessarily agree or disagree with the cause)

One of the most limited proposals I have read suggested staying with friends or relatives who are near the path of totality.  While this does get around some of the problems, it absolutely requires that one have friends or relatives who live near the path of totality and would not mind visitors staying at their place for a while.

The eclipse pundit approach to solving eclipse travel problems can be described charitably as throwing spaghetti against a wall in that they will throw out any idea, regardless if it is practical, that crosses their minds and hope something sticks.  Less charitably, but probably more accurate, is that they are simply out of touch with the socio-economic reality many Americans live with.  It takes surprisingly little to join the ranks of the working poor.  An unexpected expense, a downturn at work, or a combination of these is all it takes.  And given the fact that many people in the private sector have not seen any real raise in years means that recovering from a downturn in fortunes is slow at best.  Most of these eclipse pundits are fairly secure in their financial situation and they think little of traveling hundreds or thousands of miles for an eclipse.

As illustrated by the issues brought up during the March for Science this past April, now is not a good time for science to ignore a growing segment of the American society.  Given the challenges science faces with this administration, it needs all the public support it can get.

Does anyone have real workable ideas as to how people can resolve these issues surrounding the Great American Eclipse?  Do you think my assessment of eclipse punditry is too harsh?  If so, feel free to defend the eclipse experts.  Let’s hear from you.

T-Minus 1 Year

Today is August 20th, 2016 and that means it is one year until the Great American Eclipse, the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States since 1979.  This is the first post on that eclipse and there will be others as we get nearer to the date.

If you want information about the eclipse, such as its path, weather prospects, and such, the official Great American Eclipse website is the best place to look as it is frequently updated, has a wealth of maps, and very detailed information, including input from Fred Espenak, considered by many to be America’s foremost expert on solar eclipses.

While the information on the site is accurate, there are quite a few things that would-be eclipse observers should be aware of.  Most (if not all) the people intelligent enough to read blogs like this one already know that looking directly at any portion of the uneclipsed Sun without proper filters will result in severe retinal damage.  But there are other less obvious issues.

Most people live a considerable distance from the eclipse track (except for the 12 million or so who live on it) and that means that they must travel.  Unfortunately, long distance travel is quite a challenge these days, especially to those who have limited time and limited means.  The pundits say that one should choose their observing spot as soon as possible.  If we lived in a world with perfectly predictable weather, that would be easy.  Unfortunately we do not.  If one is traveling by air, and they see on the weather forecast that the weather their chosen site is going to be bad, that can mean a scramble to select another site, cancel the flight plan, and book another flight.  And as most people realize, changing air travel plans at the last minute can be rather costly.  On top of that, I predict that the airlines will raise airfares substantially next August just because of the eclipse.

Some people will travel by car to an eclipse site.  Driving to an eclipse site does take time and, if one can’t get much vacation time from work, that greatly limits possible eclipse sites.  Car travel does offer flexibility in terms of dealing with the weather, but there is a catch.  Travel range is limited.  According to Sky & Telescope magazine, given one day’s notice of a change in eclipse plans, it is thought that an eclipse observer can cover something on the order of 500 miles or so, depending on how long they plan to drive continuously.  Of course some will try to add to the range by increasing their travel speed.  But the interstate highway system is not like the German autobahn.  There are speed limits.  And I predict that police and state troopers all along the eclipse track will be instructed to be out in force with their radar guns to nab speeders.  According to the Great American Eclipse website, transportation departments in states along the eclipse track are well aware of the upcoming eclipse and I suspect the information will be passed along.

Does this mean that you should give up on observing the total eclipse next year?  Not at all.  It does mean that you should be aware of potential pitfalls when you make your plans.  Future posts will bring up other aspects of this truly astronomical event.  Stay tuned.