Monday, September 04, 2017

2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Mark Graves of The Oregonian/OregonLive got this shot of the 2017 solar eclipse in Salem, Oregon during totality.

I wanted to try to capture my experience of witnessing the solar eclipse of 2017. My in-laws, wife, and I headed up to Eastern Oregon in order to check out the eclipse. Up until this point, I had never witnessed a total solar eclipse (plenty of partial eclipses, but never a total eclipse). One hears about these things, but never gets a chance to see them, as they usually seem to pass over places like the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or over Antarctica, or other similarly hard place to get to. This was our chance to see the real deal, and it was within relatively easy driving distance of the Bay Area.

My wife planned our trip months prior to the eclipse. It was a good thing too, as all the hotels and campground of eastern Oregon were rapidly scooped up by eclipse fanatics pretty early on. We headed up to Oregon a few days before the eclipse in order to beat the rush. We had heard that Oregon was going to get flooded with something like 1 million visitors, and we didn't want to get stuck in traffic -- at least not on the way up. We stayed in the small town of Sisters, Oregon and took a short day trip up to Madras for the eclipse. My wife, once again, sagely bought a day pass for the Madras airport so we could be in the absolute center of the eclipse's path.

The sun began to get covered by the moon at around 9 to 9:30 AM. Slowly, the disk of the sun was consumed over a long period of time. This is when the solar eclipse glasses were used so we could monitor the eclipse's progress. The daylight got a bit dimmer over the next hour, but it was only in the few seconds before totality that things got really dark and quite odd. To me that was quite a surprise, the difference between 99% and 100% totality is literally the difference of night and day.

To be quite honest, words describing and even professional photos of a total eclipse do not do the phenomena justice. It is an overwhelming experience. The sun disappearing is just part of the experience. Photos can't capture the missing sun, the darkness of the sky, the stars shining in that darkness, and the strange twilight on the ground in the same shot. In the last few moments before totality, it was if someone had turned the sun off with a dimmer switch. It takes about 5 seconds for things to go to black. In that time, the daylight rapidly faded to non-existent, and the sky overhead turned to a night sky dominated by the pure white, diffuse, feathery ring of the sun's corona -- with the sharp black silhouette of the moon in its center.

The ground wasn't completely dark. There was just enough light to navigate the people and things around us, lit by the corona and by the light of the distant hills, sky, and clouds outside of the moon's shadow. There was quite a bit of spontaneous whooping and cheering from the witnessing crowd, including from me. We were able to make out at least one orange solar prominence against the dark edge of the moon's silhouette. We were able to see stars and the planet Venus in particular. We also noticed how cold it had suddenly become. Then, after two minutes of totality, the smallest bead of brilliant white sunlight broke the darkness, and the daylight rapidly returned.

It was a magical, once in a lifetime, experience.

A few observations:

1. As the moon progressively covers the sun, you can definitely notice the temperature dropping. It gets really chilly during totality.

2. Even with the sun mostly covered and showing barely a sliver of the sun, you can still see pretty well, and everything looks pretty much like normal, if dim, daylight. It's only after the sun is completely covered that the sky goes black and everything is clearly 'in the dark.' This makes me think that our eyes can accommodate quite a bit of dimming before we experience everything as being 'dark'. It would've been interesting to document the size changes of everybody's pupils during the hour before the eclipse.

4. After your eyes have adjusted to totality, the first bead of sunlight that signals the end of the eclipse is absurdly bright white.

5. Witnessing a total solar eclipse is like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. Very powerful, very visceral, tying the celestial to our earthbound lives. It is no wonder our ancestors were freaked out by them, and treated them as omens of national disasters.

6. iPhones take crummy, fuzzy pictures of solar eclipses. Don't bother trying.

I've linked a video of the eclipse that covers the beginning and ending of totality. 2017 Eastern Oregon Eclipse

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