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On August 21, 2017, thousands of Americans descended upon Carbondale, Illinois. This college town was deemed one of the best places to witness what was dubbed “The Great American Eclipse.” Here’s what it was like to watch a total solar eclipse at the epicenter!
Carbondale was not only on the all-important “path of totality” (where people can see the Moon completely block the Sun’s light), but also nearest to what NASA called “the point of longest duration for the total solar eclipse.” (By some stroke of cosmic coincidence, the 2024 total solar eclipse will carve a path that intersects with the 2017 path at Carbondale!)
Approximately 50,000 people traveled to Carbondale to view the event from the Saluki Stadium at Southern Illinois University which also hosted fun eclipse festivities including marching bands, eclipse-themed baked goods and food, and also a big science and technology expo with participation from NASA, the Adler Planetarium, the National Solar Observatory, and The Old Farmer’s Almanac!
Every hotel room was booked (six months in advance) and people traveled to the heartland from Europe, Asia, South America, and far-flung places to see the eclipse in the best spot.
In the meantime, many scientists, astronomers, and citizen scientists were setting up equipment at the university’s “dark site,” a location established away from people and bright lights. Its 10 concrete pads were designed as vibration-free platforms for telescopes. One of the goals was to study the Sun’s corona, which is the glow around the eclipsed Sun and normally invisible from Earth when the Sun’s bright glare obscures it.
As the eclipse event neared, thousands of onlookers gathered in the 15,000-seat stadium. Tickets were sold out.
An hour and a half before totality, scientists from the Louisiana Space Grant Consortium launched two eight-foot latex balloons from the stadium.
Totality—when the Moon completely blocks the Sun and everything is plunged into eerie darkness—had not been viewed in the continental United States since 1979. In Carbondale, totality lasted for longer than almost anywhere else: a majestic 2 minutes 38 seconds.
The last 20 minutes before totality was getting as loud as a football game in anticipation. All lights were off as the seconds ticked by to totality. There was some drama when a cloud started to roll across the sky over the partially eclipsed Sun, and the crowd was urging it to go away, chanting “No clouds!” Thankfully, the cloud floated by just in time for us to witness the moments of totality and the crowds erupted into cheers.
When darkness descended, the crowd was stunned into silent awe. The air temperature dropped and the light (of invisible and visible solar emissions) took on an odd, eerie tint. A total calm and hush covered the stadium and you could hear gasps amongst the audience.
At the very beginning and end of totality, we all witnessed the amazing “diamond ring” effect—a beacon of light that flashed brightly in the darkness. The chromosphere—the spectacular, narrow red band of solar atmosphere between the blinding photosphere and the wide corona—was very obvious for a few seconds around the time of the diamond ring. It was phenomenal.
I can only say that you don’t truly get it until you see it. Afterwards, I was surprised to find tears on my face; many others in the audience wept as well. Others said afterwards that they were “not expecting such a powerful experience.” Many used the word “spiritual” instead of “powerful.” All felt it transcended anything they had ever seen in their lives. It’s not surprising that some people in ancient times thought the world would come to an end or a great evil would follow. See eclipse mythology.
Fortunately, the media reported that there were other happy eclipse watchers in Casper, Jackson, and Douglas, Wyoming; the skies were generally clear to partly cloudy, and few if anyone missed it.
But not everyone saw totality. Both coasts had various degrees of clouds, so that people in Madras, Oregon and Charlottesville, South Carolina watched the eclipsed Sun disappear and reappear. In Nebraska, some missed totality entirely.
Was Traffic Bad?
One of the big questions I’ve gotten was, how was the traffic? In many places, it was bad. A colleague’s tour group of 100 people sat on their coaches for 12 hours in an effort to get to Boulder, Colorado, on a ride that normally would take four hours. That’s why many of us arrived the day before and camped out.
On The Bright Side
This was the largest migration of Americans to a science event that we have witnessed in our lifetime. It was gratifying to see how many were willing to inconvenience themselves for a celestial spectacle. One-third of Americans don’t even bother to vote. And we are not particularly science-savvy. So being stuck in traffic revealed how millions did indeed take the trouble to witness the greatest natural spectacle they will ever see. And if a traffic jam was the price, so be it.
Almanac Reader Reactions Readers across the United States shared their experiences on the Almanac Facebook page. Here are some of wonderful descriptions:
“Here in upper middle TN, we had totality and no cloud cover. I wasn’t extremely excited about it but wanted to see it. When I took my glasses off and saw the corona, tears started running down my face. completely unexpected. It was incredible!”
“Total eclipse in Pinckeyville, IL. It was incredible. It was eerie before total eclipse happened, the trees did not have any long shadows, no warmth from the sun, the sky was and atmosphere had a strange color. Where we were at there was few clouds in sky which gave us a great viewing area.”
“Here in Indian Valley, ID, we were able to experience a crystal clear sky for the totality. Watched the moon slowly creep across the sun until it was gone! The sky went dark, the stars came out and my feelings were very unexplainable. I felt like crying and laughing at the same time. The moon kept on it’s path and we witnessed the diamond ring. Wow! What an experience!”
“In Hopkinsville, KY, we had totality for the longest time. My mother, daughter and I were at the Western Kentucky State Fairgrounds. When the eclipse reached totality the crowd of people rousingly cheered and clapped. The light dimmed where we were, but all around us on the horizon there was light, as if it were dusk and dawn at the same time. I saw three faint streams of light coming off of the sun from behind the moon, one was larger than the other two. It was incredibly beautiful, and I welled up with tears. I don’t know why it brought about so much emotion, but it did. Nearby I heard a man exclaim, twice, “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life!”
“What amazed me was the suddenness of night noise: crickets and cicadas chirping, and how quickly they silenced once the moon had passed over. Athens, GA.”
“In Crossville TN we had totality with some random clouds but not during totality. The light was so strange. Otherworldly. During totality the moon was SO black, like a black hole with the corona all around it. I wanted to jump up and down (I’m still smiling!). Then the diamond ring was so brilliant and white. Bonus for me was that I shared it with my mom who had a recent health scare. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”
The Big Misconception
Outside of the path of totality, what most folks saw is what astronomers call a “partial eclipse.” Some folks sent in photos. The amazingly odd light on the surrounding countryside in the ten minutes before totality is indeed seen for those who have at least an 85% partial eclipse. And also the strange sight of “crescent shapes” in the shadows of bushes and trees. But nothing else.
In all honestly, partial eclipses are quite common and most folks don’t even know they are happening unless you point it out. Many people assume the draw, the big deal, for a total eclipse is ‘blackness at noon.’ (Actually, totality isn’t very dark, more like dusk). Thus, it seemingly makes sense that an eclipse that is 90% total must logically deliver 90% of the darkness, and 90% of the experience.
In reality, strange and wondrous phenomena unfold ONLYat totality. A partial eclipse offers none of it. Bob Berman, our Almanac astronomer describes it (rather dramatically) this way, “The difference between a partial and a total solar eclipse is like the difference between falling in love and washing the dishes. Or the difference between the Greek island of Santorini at sunset versus visiting your dentist’s office. Or dying and going to heaven versus dying and then sitting at an airport departure gate. Just ask anyone who’s seen one. The point: They may each contain the word eclipse, but they are incomparable experiences.”
Next Time: 2024 Total Solar Eclipse
If you missed it, don’t despair! Many Americans will have the rare opportunity to see a total solar eclipse again on April 8, 2024 when an even longer four-minute totality will sweep north from Texas and pass over Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo and Rochester, New York; Burlington, Vermont; and across Maine. There will be 32 million people on the entire “path of totality” versus 12 million in 2017, and even more people living within driving distance! This should be the most watched total solar eclipse in history, which is very exciting for all the school children and science geeks like myself.
So, for those who missed the total solar eclipse in 2017, this is your chance! I urge you to travel to the path of totality. Then, there won’t be another total solar eclipse until 2044 visible in the United States.
Sure, totality is inconvenient and maybe expensive. But do it anyway. Really.