So far, most of the posts on this blog have intended to be inspirational- I've been sharing some of the best stories and videos from past total solar eclipses that I have come across. The goal has been to inspire you to go see this eclipse from the path of totality (or at least make plans to see another one someday) and for you to spread the word to your family and friends that might live in or near the totality path. Starting with this post, I am planning to share tips about this eclipse with all of you- choosing a viewing location, dealing with the weather, a checklist for eclipse day, and more. Remember, I have been a member of an eclipse chasers discussion group for almost 20 years now, so much of this advice is passed on to you from them.
Today, I'll be covering the topic of choosing an observing location within the path of totality. You don't necessarily have to plan well in advance which exact location from which you'll watch the eclipse, but it might be a good idea to consider which factors are most important to you.
Here are some things that you may want to think about:
1. (obviously!) The observing location must be within the zone of totality. If you're outside the main shadow path (even by a short distance!) you won't see the sun completely blocked, and you'll wonder what the excitement was about. See my previous blog posts about this! As a reminder, the totality path is in between the red lines on this map, courtesy Xavier Jubier: http://xjubier.free.fr/tse2017map
2. (obviously!) Make sure the location that you pick does not have something (hills, trees, tall buildings) that may block the Sun at eclipse time. Fortunately, the Sun will be 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up in the sky from all areas in the totality path. During totality, the sun will be visible in the SE from Oregon through Nebraska, in the S in Missouri and Illinois, and in the SW from Kentucky through South Carolina. Still, it's important to scout the location just to make sure. Remember, you're concerned about where the sun will be at eclipse time- not when you're scouting the location! Do note that you could physically scout locations in the days leading up to the eclipse, or you could “scout” them by looking at pictures of the location online.
3. (not as obvious): it's a good idea to be able to see close to the horizon in all directions. You can possibly watch the shadow of the Moon rush in from the west, and recede to the east if conditions are right. I speak from experience: seeing the darkness build in the west in the last few minutes before totality can be both amazing and spine-tingling! You can also see a 360 degree ring of sunset-like colors all around the horizon during totality- if your horizon is relatively flat. Yes, a flat, 360 degree horizon would be ideal- but a location like that may not be available in the area that you've chosen. Even if it is, that location may not have some of the other characteristics that are important to you. That being said, if you do have things blocking your horizon, it's good to have spaces in between those things that allow you to see close to the horizon, at least in a few directions.
4. Surroundings: Do you want to watch it from within a large city? From the suburbs? From a moderate sized town? From a small town? Out in the countryside? If it's the last one: do you want to watch it from a beach? From the mountains? From a grass field? Next to a lake? It's really a matter of personal preference. Of course, some of these things may not apply in the area that you've chosen. And, of course, make sure you stay in the zone of totality!
5. Restrooms: Does the location need to have a restroom? Remember, you might be there for a few hours. From the beginning of the eclipse until totality is usually about 75-90 minutes. After totality, the eclipse is VERY anticlimactic, but people usually do stay for a while- hopefully to celebrate! Also, you'd likely want to arrive before the eclipse begins to find a good spot. You could potentially go to the restroom before you travel to the observing site- then having one at the site itself may not be as important to you. If having restrooms there is important to you, then you'll have to decide how clean they need to be (are port-a-potties good enough?) and how many there need to be. (consider the size of the crowd at the site; see more below). Also: how far away from the restroom are you willing to be?
6. Shade, or the possibly to go inside: It might be very hot outside, and some people might want to go to a location that gives them access to shade with a short walk- either trees or covered areas. Some people may even want a building to go into- for relief from the heat, or to pass the time before the eclipse starts. Of course, you’ll still want to watch the eclipse itself from an open area, as mentioned above. This is ESPECIALLY true in the final 15 minutes before totality. (If it's especially hot as the eclipse is in progress, then you could stay in the shade or air conditioning for that part (coming out for the occasional peek)- but I would DEFINITELY be out in the open no later than 15 minutes before totality.)
7. Other amenities: would you like to observe from a location that has a playground for the kids, for example? Or perhaps, a lake to go fishing?
8. Crowds: Do you want to observe it from a large crowd, a small crowd, or off on your own? Realize, of course, that any place that has amenities- such as the above- is likely to draw a bigger crowd, especially if it's in or near a city or town. Crowds can add to the excitement- the cheering leading into totality can be very memorable. There is also the chance to meet that many more people. On the other hand, a small group may be a more intimate experience, and a larger crowd does increase the chances of someone getting in the way at just the wrong time.
9. Parties and festivals: this is related to the above 2 factors: if you would like to attend one, that's just fine- be aware what the event will have to offer (and apply to your own situation):
- Does it offer activities for the kids?
- Are you into music? Perhaps there's one with a concert there.
- Will there be alcohol served? (this could potentially lead to overly rowdy people, be careful)
- If you see a festival advertised that claims that an astronomy group will be there with telescopes, be aware that it is very likely that there will not be enough telescopes for the number of people there. The chance of you viewing through one of those telescopes is almost impossible, and you really shouldn't be standing in a long line during the partial phases waiting for your turn at a telescope. My advice on that would be to attend that particular festival for other reasons, and if the line is short at one of the telescopes, then go up to that person and ask for a view (of course, make sure they have a proper solar filter on the FRONT of their telescope.)
10. Traffic: Do note that choosing a location that has a large crowd (or one that is near another one that has a large crowd) will increase the traffic getting to and from your eclipse viewing location.
11. Wildlife: There's not much you can do about mosquitoes and other bugs- other than bringing bug spray or other preventative measures. I will say this: it may be a good idea to avoid any areas where the bugs are going to be swarming in large numbers. As for other wildlife, birds could potentially be an issue- if they tend to swarm in large numbers in certain areas that time of year. Then there is the issue of potentially dangerous wildlife, such as bears and wolves. If you decide to observe the eclipse in an area that has potentially dangerous wildlife, just be sure to be aware of your surroundings. Do note that you're most concerned about the time leading into totality- that's when the bugs and birds may swarm, for example. You could always call local people for more information on this.
12. Light glare: You don't need to go far from city or town lights to see this eclipse- you can see it just fine from locations that have a lot of lighting (you may prefer to watch it from a city or town anyway). That being said, you may not want any bright lights glaring directly in your face. Here's where it gets tricky: the sky won't get dark enough for the lights to come on until about 1 or 2 minutes before totality. That's certainly not enough time to move locations if you have a bright light glaring in your face! When you arrive at your eclipse site, look for unshielded lights that might be visible in the direction of where the sun will be during totality (see my earlier reference to that). Ideally, there are none between you and the Sun- but if there is one, hopefully it is far enough away from you that the glare is not significant.
13. Cost: is there a cost to get access to the location that you wish to go? Do you need to buy tickets or passes in advance? Likely, there will be some cost- some places may be significantly higher than others.
An important tip: Be open to the possibility of the weather being cloudy in the area that you originally plan to go, and having to drive a few hours east or west along the shadow path to escape from the clouds. If you end up spending a large amount of money to be at an eclipse festival with activities and crowds, are the tickets refundable if you don’t show up? (The priority on eclipse day should be to escape from the clouds (within reason)- so I’d be cautious about spending significant amounts of money to go to an eclipse event (unless the tickets are refundable- up to and including the day of the event)
14. Duration of Totality: Once you pick the general region that you're interested in visiting, click on the map of the path of totality in that area using the map above. You'll notice that the longest duration for that area happens on or very close to the center of the shadow path. Many serious eclipse chasers will go to a location that is on or very close to the centerline to get the longest possible totality for that area.But, a location on or very close to the centerline may not have some of the other features that are important to you. That being said, any place in the path of totality should provide an excellent experience- and, actually, viewing close to the edge of the path has some interesting advantages- I’ll have a separate post on that later. As I will mention later in another post, finding clear skies is most important: a location that's fairly close to the edge that sees 1 minute 10 seconds of totality in a clear sky is certainly better than one on or close to the centerline that's under the clouds!
15. Weather/ Topography factors: I will be posting some tips on dealing with the weather soon. There may be some local topographic features that MAY affect the weather in your immediate vicinity. For example, I can say that viewing from within a mountain range (or even high rolling hills) may sound beautiful, but there MAY be some localized cloud cover there. On certain days, setting up next to large bodies of water may give a patch of clear skies in that immediate vicinity. It all has to do with the wind direction and humidity levels in your area. Ultimately, the thing to do would be to read my posts regarding the weather, and to just watch the weather very carefully that day.
So, hopefully that gives you some things to think about. I would certainly recommend a location that meets the first 3 factors. It's up to you- and the other people traveling with you- to decide how important the other factors are. Are there any other factors that you would like to add?
I hope everyone who goes has a fantastic experience!