Capturing the US eclipse

The US eclipse of 21 August 2017 is one that many won't forget for a long time. Science writer and eclipse chaser Nick Spall made the journey to view and image this incredible celestial sight.

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There can be few celestial events viewable on the planet to rival a total eclipse of the Sun.

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When such an extraordinary occurrence affects a country as populated and accessible as the United States of America – crossing the entire continent from the Pacific in the west to the North Atlantic in the east – then that special occasion is worth travelling for.

The 21 August ‘Great American Eclipse’ didn’t fail to amaze both residents and visitors alike, arriving as it did on the coast of Oregon and departing from South Carolina.

The last time this cross-continent event took place was in 1918.

Good weather is obviously key when selecting the observing point from which you will glimpse an eclipse. The good news for the US in the summer is that over two-thirds of the country is likely to be clear.

Selecting eastern Oregon at a point on the 70 mile-wide, west-east totality track that led inland, well away from the cloudier Pacific coastline almost 5,000 ft. high in the northern Cascade Mountains proved to be a good choice.

Talk about solar projection! A view of the eclipse projected through binoculars and onto a fellow eclipse chaser's back. Credit: Nick Spall.
Talk about solar projection! A view of the eclipse projected through binoculars and onto a fellow eclipse chaser’s back. Credit: Nick Spall.

Despite a slight smoke haze from seasonal forest fires, when the eclipse period started at 9.08 hours Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) all was set for a thrilling experience. No real difficulties were experienced from visitors pulling off the highways to choose their ideal spots, with limited queues and many wide spaces to select.

Many UK enthusiasts who travelled to Cornwall for the eclipse of 1999 will remember a more crowded road system!

For this observer’s third total eclipse (after the UK and Turkey), the experience shared with excited mainly US citizens proved very special, with great enthusiasm and a determination to catch this once in a lifetime event. As supplies of filters ran out, some watchers were even using full welders’ masks to view the Sun (note: this is not recommended! Alway use certified safety glasses when viewing an eclipse).

Welders' masks at the ready, totality begins! Credit: Nick Spall.
Welders’ masks at the ready, totality begins! Credit: Nick Spall.

The cooling of the air and the eerie decreasing of the daylight up to totality seemed more potent at high altitude in the mountains.

Fellow observers watched as the Moon tracked across the Sun, covering four medium sized sunspots. It is extraordinary to realise that the totality shadow is travelling across the USA at over 2,000 mph.

Traffic on the highway ceased, birds went silent, a hushed silence descended and then the sky suddenly plunged into near darkness.

It seems impossible, but stars and the planet Venus had suddenly appeared in the sky – at 10.20 am in the morning! The glorious ‘diamond-ring’ effect occured before full totality, then red coloured Baily’s beads strung the obscured disk of the Sun.

The glorious corona provided a beautiful backdrop to the now black disc hanging somewhat bizarrely in the sky. All too soon – after only 2 minutes for this location on the totality track – the stunning diamond ring returned followed by sunlight slowly increasing and warming the air again.

What an event – one not to be missed.
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For those who couldn’t be there this time, don’t despair! – on 8 April 2024, the next US coast to coast eclipse totality line will run from Texas to Maine: a must for future eclipse devotees’ diaries!