In all of the solar system, and, probably, in all of most other solar systems, there is nothing so amazing as a perfect, total solar eclipse. Many people probably just think that a solar eclipse is a curiosity, beautiful to see if you get the chance. But the fact that our moon is the perfect size and distance from us to occasionally block out the sun, is amazing. For you geek wannabes, the moon at 2159 miles in diameter is about 1/400th the diameter of the sun (864,576 miles in diameter). And the sun is about 400 times as far from us as the moon. So line them up, and they take up, from our viewpoint, an equal size in space. How amazing is that?
How would I rate this experience? I've never formulated a bucket list of things to do and experience before I die. But if I did, this would be near the top. How would I characterize a two-minute event that I spent four days driving to see? Absolutely worth it.
My wife and I had never seen a total eclipse. So when I first became aware of the eclipse, I started doing a little research on the most reliable cloudless weather in the path of totality. A year ago, I made hotel reservations in Boise, Idaho, which wasn't actually in the path of totality but was a mere 70 miles down the interstate from not just totality but the center of totality. For those of you who aren't closet science geeks, the reason that mattered to me was that the total time of totality varies from slightly over 2 minutes in the center of the path to just seconds near the edge of totality. I figured if I were going to drive for the better part of two days each way, I wanted to get the maximum effect.
After all, a four-day round trip to see a two minute show that might not even happen due to cloud cover, was a bit of a gamble. How did it turn out? It was astonishing!
Here's why. In a partial eclipse, even one with as much as 99% coverage by the moon, the portion of the sun that is still visible shines at its full power. So even though there is just a tiny bit of sun showing, it is still like having a super bright spotlight shining down from the sky. The overall world darkens a lot, and the birds start flying around trying to figure out what's going on. But you still can't look directly at the sun without your super dark glasses.
But when you upgrade your eclipse from 99% to 100%, it feels like upgrading from the concept of God to actually sitting down with her in the flesh and sharing a beer.
|This is known as the Diamond Ring effect. A moment before totality and a moment after totality, you see what looks like a brilliant gem. This is the sun's light just barely bursting around the edge of the moon.|
Totality is something difficult to describe. Here's how it played out.
We left our Boise hotel at 5 a.m. and drove west into the most eastern part of Oregon, a place called Huntington. Along with Madras a couple of hundred miles to the west, Huntington has a weather history that places it in the most reliably sunny places in the country for this time of year.
We pulled off the freeway at a marvelous place called Farewell Bend State Park, a beautiful, grassy, place on the Snake River, which flows all the way from Jackson, Wyoming to the Columbia River. Farewell Bend has a deep history involving all of the settlers traveling the Oregon Trail beginning back in 1843. Some paused in Eastern Oregon and decided to make a new life farming the dry rolling hills. Other said their goodbyes to fellow settlers and headed on down the Snake River on their way to the West Coast.
We waited, along with hundreds of other eclipse watchers, as the moon slowly ate into the sun. It was cool to see, but it was nothing that any of us but the children in the crowd hadn't already seen before.
As the moon covered most of the sun, we began to notice that the landscape was less bright. The light was whiter and harsher as if the sun were a very bright parking lot light. As the moon covered more and more of the sun, the speed of change seemed to increase. The temperature dropped from quite warm to cool. I pulled on my sweatshirt. Birds started taking to the air as if suddenly realizing that their evening ritual had fallen behind. The total time it took for the moon to reach totality from after it first began nibbling on the sun was a little over an hour. Totality where we were was 2 minutes and 9 seconds.
As totality approached, it seemed that the moon's movement sped up further. In a moment, the coverage was nearly complete. The tiny bit of direct sun that still appeared was brilliant, far too bright to look at without the special glasses. Then, the culmination of the long wait came, and the magic moment happened, sooner than maybe anyone expected.
It was almost a shock. The last bit of direct sunlight shut off as if someone had flipped a switch. In a moment we went from a very small bit of very bright sun to a not very dark night.
We saw a bright glow at the point where the last bit of sun had been. This is the effect that many describe as looking like a diamond ring. In a moment, that glow also disappeared. Then the dominant feature in the sky was the corona of the sun, larger for us than in the picture below. It stretched out twice the diameter of the sun. It was one of the more amazing things I'd ever seen. Everyone gasped. Some made awe-struck whoops. Then there was a hush.
Think of the corona as the undulating atmosphere of the sun. It extends millions of miles above the sun's surface. And, in one of the great mysteries of the sun, the corona, at a million degrees or more, is much, much hotter than the sun's surface, which is relatively cool at less than ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit.
The entire crowd was transfixed at this sight.
After our first astonishment, we took a moment to look around. Venus and another planet were visible in the dark sky. A few stars shown. At the horizon in all directions was a sunset-like glow coming from the surrounding land - 35 miles away - that was outside of the band of totality and still in sunlight.
|Totality is beyond description. The entire crowd gasped in unison.|