Lately, several people have asked me what exactly to look for during a total solar eclipse. So if you’re traveling to this one on August 21, here’s what you’ll see at 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, and totality!
Or if you are planning to travel to the upcoming solar eclipse totalities—in Chile in 2019 or 2020, in Australia in 2023, or here in the Northeastern U.S. in 2024—save this page.
When and Where Can You See It?
The answer depends on your location.
The first point of contact for this August 21 eclipse will be at Lincoln Beach, Oregon at 9:05 a.m. PDT. Totality begins there at 10:16 a.m. PDT. Over the next hour and a half, it will cross through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. The total eclipse will end near Charleston, South Carolina at 2:48 p.m. EDT. From there the lunar shadow leaves the United States at 4:09 EDT. Its longest duration will be near Carbondale, Illinois, where the sun will be completely covered for two minutes and 40 seconds.
What to Look For!
The entire solar eclipse experience is about 90 minutes long. It begins with the partial eclipse as the Moon starts to cover the disk of the Sun. Look for that first nibble. For most of the country, a partial eclipse is all you’ll see. It’s still pretty cool. No matter what, it’s critical to use safe solar filters for eye protection.
Deep partial eclipse from 2012. Credit: Evan Zucker
Totality itself lasts just 2 ½ minute this time, and it wil last 4 minutes in 2024. But the real spectacle starts about 5 to 10 minutes before totality begins, so be aware of the time of totality at your location and keep a close eye on your wristwatch or phone.
Countdown to Totality
- During the hour-long partial eclipse leading up to the great event, you need consistent use of your eclipse glasses or filter. But 50 minutes in—ten minutes before totality—put the filter down and pay attention to your surroundings. Sunlight is now emanating exclusively from the solar limb, its edge, and this imparts an otherworldly illumination.
- The light is noticeably dimmer and starts to take on an odd or eerie “tint.” Ordinary, familiar objects like houses and cars now seem bizarre. Colors look more saturated and contrast is boosted. Shadows are stark.
- Notice your own shadow. Can you see the shadows of individual hairs on your head or arms?
- Starting about five minutes before totality, the light on everything is visibly reduced, seems more yellow, almost orange, and the shadows of bushes or trees now contain countless bizarre glowing crescents.
- Notice how the temperature is dropping.
- Look at the reaction of animals. They may suddenly quiet down as if it were time to sleep.
- Clouds on the horizon will go dark as the Moon’s shadow sweeps over them. Can you see the oncoming umbral shadow?
- Take a look at the Sun through your filter now. The Sun, which has looked like a crescent for some time, now has that crescent shrinking into an extended point.
Bizarre crescent shapes during partial eclipse. Credit: fedcomite
- Look again at the ground around you. Two minutes before totality, all white surfaces—or a sheet if you’ve spread it in front of you—may suddenly be filled with eerie, wiggly black lines. These are the legendary shadow bands. They cannot be photographed. Any video or still picture you take will later show no sign of them! Shadow bands are caused by atmospheric refraction of the thin solar crescent just prior to second contact and/or immediately after third contact.
- At one minute before totality, the shadow bands reach their maximum display, the light on everything is most stark, and the illumination sharply fades.
- As the light drops further, start taking quick glances at the Sun directly, without a filter. It’s important that these be momentary, half-second glimpses, because the Sun is not yet safe to stare at. (See my eclipse safety tips.)
- Just before totality, look for Baily’s Beads, created by shafts of light that poke through the deep valleys and craters of the Moon. The result is a few brilliant beads that disappear one after another. If you’re using a telescope or binoculars to observe the beads, keep your solar filters on. If not, take the filters off once the number of beads dwindles to two.
- Look for the Diamond Ring effect. You’ll know it when you see it: a single bead of sunlight on the edge of the suddenly visible black Moon, with the solar corona now surrounding the black Moon. Take only quick glimpses of this at a time. And if you instead glimpse full sunlight, look away immediately, and try again 20 seconds later, with another half second glimpse.
Credit: Rick Fienberg / TravelQuest International / Wilderness Travel. “One of the most beautiful sights associated with a total solar eclipse is the diamond ring. It appears just before the beginning of totality, when a single bright point of sunlight—the diamond—shines through a deep valley on the Moon’s limb (edge) and the inner corona—the ring—becomes visible. As the diamond vanishes, it’s safe to remove your solar filters.”
- The purpose of all this is to catch totality the moment it begins, and not to miss any of it. When totality begins, no direct sunlight remains, just the ink-black new Moon surrounded by the creamy but dim glow of the solar corona. Check your time piece to confirm. Totality has begun.
Credit: Rick Fienberg / TravelQuest International / Wilderness Travel. Photo of the Solar Corona During Totality. “This is a composite of short, medium, and long exposures, as no single exposure can capture the huge range of brightness exhibited by the solar corona. No filter was used during the exposures, as totality is about as bright as the full Moon and just as safe to look at. At all other times, though, a safe solar filter is required to observe or photograph the Sun.”
- Filters off! Yes, now you can stare at the Sun. While you can NOT look directly at the Sun during the eclipse’s partial phases (and must keep those glasses on), you can take off the glasses now. “If you leave the filters on, you won’t see anything at all,” says Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist who has been to 27 total eclipses. It’ll be too dark.
- If you have binoculars, they will give you a much more detailed view of the corona.
- During that first minute of totality, point binoculars at the eclipsed Sun and look for deep pink flames shooting from its edge. These are prominences—geysers of nuclear flame.
- Using the naked eye or binoculars, look for structure in that glow surrounding the Moon. Any fine filaments or lines are the magnetic field lines of the Sun, a wondrous sight that is normally invisible.
- The corona with its filamentary structure, and the pink prominences, are the main totality features you are looking to observe. But you will also feel an astonishing, unique sense, or vibration, or presence, to the whole thing. It will be like nothing else you have ever experienced in life. Let this experience in, savor it, as opposed to intellectually trying to figure it all out.
- Use binoculars only during the first half of totality, however, because you don’t want to accidentally get any direct returning sunlight into your eyes through the binoculars when totality ends. You might also look around the sky and look for any stars to be out. Certainly, Venus and Mercury will be there, with Venus the brightest.
- Don’t worry about your surroundings. You don’t need to be viewing from a mountain top or some other place of natural beauty. The totality will grab your focus and be a complete package of unspeakable beauty. The foreground you choose is nice, but not vital to the experience.
Credit: Rick Fienberg / TravelQuest International / Wilderness Travel. Visible just beyond the Moon’s silhouette are solar prominences: brilliant red arcs, loops, and jets of hot gas propelled by the explosive release of the Sun’s magnetic energy.
Forget About Taking Photos!
One important tip is NOT to spend much time with photography! Eclipse experts must bracket their images by using a range of exposures and f-stops on their cameras. They use at least a 200mm telephoto lens, and usually a 400mm for even more magnification. And of course a tripod. And even then, a lot of fancy processing and image combination is needed afterward. People who spend their totality minutes fiddling with their f-stop dials always regret it afterward. So know that expert images will be available after the eclipse, and they will be much better than anything you can create. Don’t even try! (Do your photos of the Moon ever compare to the real feeling?) In this case, totality only lasts a precious few moments.
Another factor is your soundtrack. You will find totality to be one of the most sacred experiences of your life. I think it’s best experienced in silence. But some really enjoy the excited chatter of a group, which invariably includes commentary and exclamations. It’s not bad per se, but know that you won’t get a second chance. So decide ahead of time what you want. Me, I inform our tour members that I will be unavailable during totality. If you’re in a large group, decide ahead of time whether you want to observe it with silence and one-pointedness, or in a matrix of conversation.
The End of Totality
Another diamond ring will mark the end of totality. Some say you shouldn’t watch it, but every astronomer I know does indeed watch it, including myself. However, that brilliant spot of returning Sun, the diamond, grows more and more intense, and use common sense to stop watching it after a very short time, after which you must exclusively use your solar eclipse glasses again.
In practice, totality is so astounding, few people bother to observe more than a few minutes of the hour long partial eclipse that appears after totality. Instead, everyone tried to recall that wondrous thing they experienced. But they can’t. The magical feeling fades, and does not return until the next totality you travel to see, at least one year later.
For more information about the eclipse, see the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Guide.