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.
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.