August 23, 2017 [LINK / comment]
Totally awesome * eclipse of the sun!
On Sunday morning, Jacqueline and I embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime (?)** pilgrimmage to witness one of the most amazing marvels in all the natural world: the total eclipse of the sun. Here in Staunton, the sun was expected to be about 85% covered, but we were both eager to see the glorious totality for the first time. So, we hit the road and drove southwest to eastern Tennessee. (The journey down there and back was an adventure in itself, and will be the subject of a separate blog post.)
In preparation for the eclipse, I had gone to several local retail outlets (on August 13-14) in search of the special eclipse glasses, striking out each time. Then last Friday (August 18), I went up to the library in downtown Harrisonburg, where they were handing out free eclipse glasses, and once again, they ran out just before they got to me. Fortunately, we found another source on Saturday, just in time.
I had studied maps and had a good idea of where to go to see the total eclipse for the longest possible interval: about two and a half minutes. My choice of destination depended on the weather forecasts, and we were fortunate that clear skies were expected throughout Tennessee and South Carolina. While in Knoxville on Monday morning I got a tip from a friend (Peter Van Acker), who was already in the town of Sweetwater, Tennessee, so that's where we went. But by the time we arrived (about 10:30), it was already crowded and hectic, so we weren't able to meet up with Peter and his wife. Instead, we found a suitable location at the Flea Market just west of town. We met some nice folks who offered us seats at a picnic table in the shade.
At about 11:30 I took a test photograph of the sun with my Canon PowerShot SX-50 camera (covering the lens with my eclipse glasses), and I was thrilled that sunspots appeared clearly. Just after 1:00, I spotted the moon intruding upon the sun for the first time, and all the folks around me quickly went for a look with their own eclipse glasses. The passage took a long time, nearly an hour and a half before the sun was completely obscured. As the eclipse progressed, I took photos of the partial phases about every 15 or 20 minutes, with fairly consistent results. (I also took some video footage, which I will probably edit and upload to YouTube soon.) At about 2:00 we all moved away from the building and into an open field to make sure the parking lot lights wouldn't detract from our view of the impending total eclipse.
Fortunately, the skies remained bright blue, with just a few scattered clouds. I was a bit surprised that the ambient brightness didn't seem to decrease by all that much, even after the sun was over half covered. You could tell it was dimmer than usual, but the human eye compensates for brightness, making the apparent difference much less than one might think. Then, as the final sliver of sun disappeared and the total eclipse phase began, it got very dark in a hurry and the air cooled noticeably. The crowds ooh'ed and ahh-ed as the black disk of the moon appeared, surrounded by the dazzling, shimmering bluish-white corona. In my whole life, don't think I have ever seen anything as beautiful. Unfortunately, my camera just wasn't up to the task of capturing the sun's corona. Knowing that there would be only had 2 1/2 minutes of eclipse totality, I decided beforehand to relish the moment and not fuss with camera settings. It was at least gratifying to get photos of two planets in the sun's vicinity: Venus, a ways off to the right, and Mercury, fairly close on the left side. There was light along the horizon much like at dusk, but extending all the way around for 360 degrees, making it seem as if the sun was setting in all directions at once!
I was looking up at the entrancing spectacle just as the famous "diamond ring" effect was manifested, when the first bit of direct sunlight peeks along the edge of the moon. That's when it's no longer safe to look directly at the sun, so we had to put our eclipse glasses back on as the solar crescent got bigger and bigger. We noticed small groups of birds acting strangely, obviously confused by the brief period of "night": There were 6-8 Killdeers noisly circling and landing not far from us, and soon I saw a few Common Nighthawks flying several hours ahead of their normal schedule. After a few more minutes, we said our goodbyes [and headed home to Virginia.]
Below you can see a montage that summarizes the eclipse phases (which I posted on Facebook), as well as separate, larger versions of those images. For two of them, I also made double-sized images, which you can see by clicking on the adjacent links with exclamation marks. In summary, [nothing can compare to seeing a total eclipse in person, and] Jacqueline and I strongly agree that it was well worth the travel effort, in spite of hellish traffic on the way back. But we'll leave that part of the story for a separate blog post...
** There will be another solar eclipse in the United States on April 8, 2024, seven years from now. The path of totality will extend from Texas through Ohio and into Maine. So maybe we'll get a another chance for such a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience!
* On Facebook, I posted a "Public Service Announcement" along with one of the total eclipse images: The phrase "totally awesome" should be reserved for occasions such as this!