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'Quite dramatic' eclipse provides research opportunity, odd shadows, travel options

The Aug. 21 solar eclipse is a big one for scientists because of its convenience. (Source: AP Photo) The Aug. 21 solar eclipse is a big one for scientists because of its convenience. (Source: AP Photo)

(RNN) - The sky will darken, the temperature will drop and many people in the U.S. will be looking towards the sun. It won't be visible, though, because the moon will be in the way.

The Aug. 21 solar eclipse provides the United States its best opportunity to see a total solar eclipse since 1979.

Along a narrow strip that crosses from Oregon to South Carolina and touches 14 states, an eerie twilight will be visible for a couple of minutes before things return to normal.

And not only that, the United States is the only country that gets to see it. That won't happen again for 299 years, and the last time it occurred was more than 500 years prior to the United States' being formed.

"Mr. Eclipse" Fred Espenak, scientist emeritus at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, has written several books on eclipses and traveled to all seven continents to witnesses more than 20 of them. He said strange shadows will occur as totality is approached.

"In the last minute or two, shadow bands - rippling bands of light and shade - appear," Espenak said. "Winds bend the sun's light. The same thing causes stars to twinkle."

Shadows also change in a different way. One tried and true way of viewing partial eclipses is with a pinhole camera. As the moon covers the sun, a shadow forms on the ground when light is projected through a small hole. Espenak said light shining through a tree's leaves can have the same effect and is most noticeable the closer it gets to totality.

Even though it takes hours for the moon to cover, and uncover, the sun's surface, the visible effect on the ground occurs rapidly.

"It's quite dramatic and overwhelming. Looking up at the sky, what was too bright to look at is gone," Espenak said. "The last 30 seconds (before totality) you can visibly see daylight fading. It goes from bright sunlight to twilight in 10 to 20 seconds. Then it's the black disk of the moon surrounded by the halo of the sun's corona, a structure of filaments like a flower."

Other visible phenomena include what look like red laser beams caused by clouds of hydrogen gas. Depending on the sun's activity at the moment of totality, Espenak said there can be several or none. The brightest stars in the sky become visible and a brief "diamond ring" can be seen seconds before totality.

The effect is similar to seeing a sunrise or sunset, but with a full 360-degree view. Then a couple of minutes later, it all happens again in reverse.

Where to see it

Prime viewing locations can be found all along the path of totality and one such location will be Wyoming. Many of Wyoming's popular travel destinations are in the eclipse's path and the typical summer weather - and lack of urban light pollution - is ideal for skygazing. Espenak himself plans to be in Casper.

Tia Troy, public relations manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism, said the state has been preparing for an influx of travelers.

"Construction is not going to take place the day before or the day after to accommodate the travelers," Troy said. "We're making sure our welcome centers are ready and working with our local communities to make sure they have enough water and toilet paper and things like that."

Like other states and cities in the eclipse's path, Wyoming's tourism office has a website dedicated to eclipse travel with links to weather forecasts and local events.

Wyoming typically advertises to attract summer travelers but isn't doing anything special for the eclipse, mostly because it doesn't need to. The eclipse has its own publicity.

Carbondale, IL, however, is promoting itself as it happens to be only a few miles from the point of greatest duration and its website dedicated to the eclipse calls it "a peak moment in your life." It also says NASA will have a livestream from Carbondale.

Why it's important

With the excitement comes some serious science. The primary modern research focus is to learn why the sun's corona is so hot. Espenak said the sun's surface is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but the corona can reach 1 million degrees.

Eclipses provide the only clear opportunity to see the sun's corona. But it takes a large, coordinated effort to observe changes. That's why the 2017 eclipse is such an important one for scientific research because of its convenience and prospects for favorable weather.

The Citizen CATE project is an effort by amateur scientists to capture images of the sun's corona throughout the eclipse's across the U.S. and combine the images into a time lapse view of the entire eclipse. Photographing the corona is difficult, Espenak said, because cameras aren't as sensitive as the human eye. Multiple pictures taken at different exposures must be digitally combined after-the-fact to recreate the image the eye can see.

One of Espenak's pictures of a solar eclipse was used by the U.S. Postal Service on a special commemorative stamp issued in June.

Scientific research has been an important part of solar eclipses for hundreds of years. Helium was named for the sun because it was discovered during a solar eclipse in 1868, 30 years before being found on Earth, Espenak said.

The eclipse is also a rare opportunity to observe animals.

With solar eclipses rare to begin with, it is even more rare that they occur in major population centers - i.e. places with zoos. Nashville, TN, falls squarely within the path of totality and the Nashville Zoo plans to enlist visitors to document animal behavior during the 1- to 2-minute eclipse.

It can be a confusing event for animals as a simulated night time pops up in the middle of the day and then just as quickly disappears.

"We are not certain what to expect from animals," Jim Bartoo, marketing and public relations director for the Nashville Zoo, said via email. "We have done some research on past observations during either partial or total eclipses. Those observations include seeing nesting or roosting behaviors, cessation of grazing or vocalizing, disorientation or pacing."

Additionally, Bartoo said nocturnal animals such as insects and bats may become active and the zoo's animals may expect to be let inside their nighttime enclosures.

The zoo's visitors will be given social media hashtags to use so the information can be readily viewed as well as log information into the iNaturalist smart phone app.

Bartoo said the zoo hasn't fielded many requests for field trips for Aug. 21 because several Tennessee school districts are letting students have the day off. The zoo expects 5,000 visitors, which Bartoo said is more than it typically sees on a comparable Monday.

It's been a while since the U.S. has gotten such a front-row seat, but the wait for it to happen again won't be as long. The U.S. will be bisected by an annular eclipse in 2023 - also known as a "ring of fire" - and another total eclipse in 2024.

Espenak said anyone planning to view it needs to be flexible with their plans. His interest in eclipses began as an amateur astronomer in 1970 with a total eclipse in North Carolina. From there, he has traveled to 26 additional eclipses and seen 20. Inclement weather has ruined the other opportunities.

"I would urge people to try to see the total eclipse because it's one of the most spectacular things they will ever see in their life," Espenak said. He said it's best to choose a location within the path of totality and constantly monitor the weather to find a clear viewing area within driving distance.

For a look at what media coverage might look like, check out this clip from 1979.

Copyright 2017 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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