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.