On the Dark Side

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

If ever there was a date to take a road trip this summer, make it August 21. That’s when a total solar eclipse will pass over the United States, beginning at 9:05 a.m. in Lincoln Beach, Oregon, sweeping southeast across the country, and ending at 2:48 p.m. just north of Charleston, South Carolina.

So what’s the big deal? For starters, the last time one came this close to Savannah was in 1970, and the next time won’t be until 2045. “We get a lunar eclipse every couple of years, but a solar takes a very narrow path across the Earth so you have to be in the right place at the right time,” says Chuck Watson, a geophysicist at Enki Research, a Savannah-based firm that specializes in applying advanced science to engineering and public policy problems.

For the vast majority of people, it literally is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a real wonder of nature—as if Old Faithful came and parked 100 miles away from us.

For those of you who haven’t thought about solar eclipses since, say, elementary school, a quick refresher: They occur when the new moon moves directly between the Earth and the sun, casting the moon’s shadow upon the Earth in a “path of totality” that ranges from 60 to 166 miles wide. Within that path, the moon completely covers the sun (total eclipse); outside that path, the moon partially covers it (partial eclipse). The whole thing typically lasts only a few minutes; this one will clock in at two minutes, 30 seconds.

A partial eclipse is what we’ll get in Savannah, and you might not even notice it. For those few minutes, the sky will darken a bit, like a cloudy day, and the sun will appear as a sliver (see Eclipse Essentials, below). A total eclipse, though, is what sends NASA scientists scurrying to all ends of the world and causes public school districts to postpone its first day of class so students and faculty can witness the sight with their families.

It’s one of those see-it-to-believe-it experiences that’s tough to describe in words. (This writer actually watched the 2006 one in the Sahara Desert and afterwards, everyone came together in laughter, tears and hugs. Weird? Absolutely.) Here’s what will happen: As the moon’s shadow moves in, the sky will grow very dark and the temperature will suddenly drop some 10 degrees. “Look west and it will start to get light, look east and it will start to get dark,” says Watson. “Birds and frogs get confused and think it’s nighttime so their sounds will change.”

A total eclipse’s real wow factor is the “diamond-ring effect,” the few seconds at the beginning and at the end of totality when the sun’s corona is visible around the moon’s edge, creating a glowing “ring,” while the last bit of sunlight shines through the moon’s hills and valleys, creating the shimmering “diamond.”

So come the morning of August 21, Watson has two words of advice to Savannahians: Drive north. “Head to I-26 in South Carolina,” he says. “The eclipse almost runs down the middle of it. You’ll be able to see it in Charleston, up through Orangeburg, Columbia and Greenville. The sun will be high, so all you need is a clear view of the sky.”

And if you miss it? Mark your calendar for 2045.

ECLIPSE ESSENTIALS

  1. Do not look at a partial or a total eclipse without protective viewing glasses. (You can order them on Amazon.com). The only time it’s safe to take them off is during totality, the two minutes and 30 seconds when the sun is completely covered by the moon.
  2. Watch the weather—if you can’t see the sun, you can’t see the eclipse. “If we’re in a normal afternoon thunderstorm pattern that day, my advice is to drive to Columbia, South Carolina and sit near I-26 with your smartphone,” says Watson. “At 1p.m. or so, see where the storms are forming and then drive 60 miles one way or the other to avoid them.”
  3. Visit Watson’s Facebook page for eclipse updates: Facebook.com/enkiops. “I’ll start posting a few days in advance, and do a big post the night before with the best places to watch.”
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