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2017 Total Solar Eclipse

Background

On the 21st August, 2017, a total solar eclipse took place that spanned a narrow band across the contiguous United States from coast-to-coast. The last time such an event took place right across the nation was in 1918. Since then, no other total solar eclipse had been visible anywhere from the mainland USA. Whilst the 2017 eclipse was also partially visible from land in many other places, including northern Canada, northern South America, north-western Europe and Africa and the far flung extremities of Asia, this very rare spectacle reached its true glory of totality right across the USA, which is perhaps why the media described it as "The Great American Eclipse".

Above: You know there is something really major about to happen when despite the event taking place over several hours, even the local McDonalds has to stop serving customers... for just 10 minutes. It does beg the question, though, whom might actually want to buy a cheeseburger whilst a total solar eclipse is about to take place outside this prefabricated modern-day temple.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes completely in front of the Sun in the sky. It is by sheer coincidence that both generally appear about the same size as viewed from Earth and whilst the Sun is actually about 400 times wider than the Moon, it is also roughly 400 times further away. There are different types of eclipses, depending on the distances and angles the Sun and Moon are relative to our planet. Also, bearing in mind much of the world is covered in vast oceans and inhospitable lands, to see the phenomenon of a total eclipse is a rare occasion indeed. To view this event in a convenient manner… on land, in a country where language is no barrier and with convenience all so familiar meant nothing else, but another trip to America!

The photographs further down the page were taken on the day, during a three-week long road trip in the USA. Whilst the journey started and finished in New Jersey, one of the primary purposes was to track down the best potential place to view the Eclipse. Despite the event taking place right across the nation, over some 2,500 miles, the path of shadow created by the Moon passing in front of the Sun was just 68 miles wide and weather-permitting, was to be visible from just 14 states (Oregon, Idaho, a small area of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, barely Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina). Within the 48 contiguous states, more than 300 million people were within a 1-or 2-day drive of this path of totality. It is not thus surprising to find many people heading for this geographically speaking narrow band to witness a spectacle for many to be for sure a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Above: Driving away from Omaha. Too much cloud and time to move ourselves to more promising skies!

So...what is a Total Solar Eclipse?

One may wonder why this phenomenon is so rare when the Moon orbits the Earth approximately once a month. The answer lies in the fact that that the solar system is not perfectly flat. The orbits of the Earth and the Moon do not lie in quite the same plane with respect to the Sun. If one were to draw Earth’s orbit around the Sun on a flat sheet of paper, the orbit of the Moon around Earth would be tilted some 5° out of the paper; the Moon would float a little above and below the flat page, except for the rare occurrences whereby the planes of the Sun, Earth and Moon intersect. Eclipses only occur when both the Sun and the Moon fall flat on this hypothetical sheet of paper, intersecting along what is known as the line of nodes. To get things into perspective, the 5° tilt equates to ten times the half of a degree width of the Sun in the sky. In other words, when the Moon passes the Sun in the sky as viewed from Earth, there is plenty of space for it to pass without crossing the Sun’s path. This is why solar eclipses are so rare.

The Journey

As Total Solar Eclipses are rare, each one not being visible from everywhere on Earth within a 24-hour period and the author of this webpage happened to live on a relatively small island somewhere in north-western Europe, it felt a necessity to jump over “the pond”, going to any lengths to witness this remarkable show of nature.

The original plan was to head for Nebraska, as it seemed to be the state with the most promising cloud-free skies. With the aid of free-roaming in the USA on mobile phones after a dismal Motel-6 episode where the reserved room in Omaha had been sold off (one may imagine at a premium due to the sheer numbers of people heading to this narrow band across the map), it was time to make other plans. A night in the hire car, followed by a day in Boystown (Internal page Link Here) was followed by a whopping drive of just under 900 miles in an attempt to get the most guaranteed visibility in the sky. To put things into perspective here, this drive was over the 874 miles, which is the traditional road distance to traverse the entire island of Great Britain from Land’s End on the southwestern tip of England to John o’ Groats on the north-eastern tip of Scotland.

Approaching the Event

Chasing clear skies and just 36 hours later, including another sleep in the car, from the early hours until dawn, lands us in a beautiful country park near Decatur, Tennessee (shown above). As the Sun rose on this August day, the sky was free of clouds and all looked great. Other vehicles had turned up at this same rural spot (one from Ontario, Canada). Something had not been apparent on our arrival though; the close proximity of a power station. The cooling towers had started emitting huge plumes of steam. Whilst considering the hours displayed on the mobile phones and clock in the hire car from New Jersey at a time of disorientation on this historical day’s morning, the angle at which the Sun would move in the sky by 1:30pm, the local time of totality, and the possibility of the eclipse being eclipsed itself by the plume was considered. Something became very apparent. Unless we moved again, the big event would be literally clouded over not by nature’s behaviours, but due to a manmade structure forcing a massive cloud of steam right in the way of the view.

Above: The power station spotted in the morning and still visible in the second location poses a major risk to missing the Eclipse completely. As the moon edges towards the Sun (visible just off the photo to the top-left), it was calculated that the steam plumes could potentially obscure the view of both celestial bodies aligning with Earth.

A drive down to the Tennessee River (above) ensued and this looked like a promising spot. Whilst considering the sad story of somebody whom had previously been to see an eclipse on a boat in a lake, only to find the air’s cooling in the shadow caused a mist to rise, thus obscuring all hope of visibility, the river had a great vantage point... or so we thought. Many more people had also gathered here and so we decided to unpack the cameras and tripods. However, the plume of the power station still looked threatening and seemed to be getting much larger. We had some interesting conversations, including with an academic whose field of interest was astronomy and had set up camp by the river. Alas, the plume from the power station was still presenting a major threat and having come all the way from the UK, right now, finding a location where the sky was clear became an absolute priority. It was time to move again, further down the river to another spot. None of the people we had left here seemed concerned, including a gentleman and his family also from England, although their apparent nonchalant approach to keeping a close eye on the visibility in the sky could have potentially jeopardized their day.

The third, and final chosen place to view the Eclipse, seen in the photo above, was a further few miles away from the power station and at the terminus of another road that led down to the banks of the river (at the time presumed to be the landing area of an old ferry crossing). Dominated by the modern Washington Ferry bridge (built in 1994), the sky here looked the most promising and time made sure it was the moment to stay static to view the big event. On arrival here, by down the river, there were some other people who had also gathered in a now all-too-familiar fashion, all ready with cameras, deck-chairs, sandwiches, and the like, to watch the big event unfold.

The Total Solar Eclipse

Now settled in “the spot” amongst about a dozen or so other folk, with a sense of perplexity by the Tennessee River, it was time to start setting up ready for the big moment. A decision was made there and then. My older brother would head off with a video camera with a newly acquainted companion whom had had an (and I quote) “Epic Failure” due to having no space left on his phone's memory card and subsequently with no apparent ability to take any photographs whatsoever. I were to remain static by the hire car to shoot on a tripod, lugged over from the UK, quite possibly the most precious photos I have ever been privileged to have had the opportunity to take:

As the Moon began to cross the path of the Sun, which started to look like something from the 80's video game Pac-Man, the air started to cool. The experience is hard to describe in words, but something was just not right. Birds did indeed fly up to the trees at approximately 1:30pm, insects started making familiar night-time noises and then, just as the darkness set in, a dog from one of the other spectator’s neighbouring vehicles went berserk. I remain amazed to this day how the poor canine knew something different was happening and had gone into a state of panic as a result.

Some frequent observers of Total Solar Eclipses have stated that for them, the event seems to last just a few seconds. I beg to differ. This moment of a few minutes, whilst panicking over the camera and in a seemingly endless state of meditation, staring at the sky, taking in a sudden view of stars and planets, somewhat overwealmed, felt on reflection that time had stood still.

The next photo was taken just before totality – the effect seen here is known as “Baily’s beads”. This is a feature whereby the rugged topography of the lunar limb allows beads of sunlight to shine in some places, whilst not in others. The effect is named after the English Astronomer Francis Baily, whom made observations of an annular eclipse of the Sun as viewed from Scotland in 1936.

It is quite possibly hard to describe the entire experience. Surreal, humbling and an unexpected feeling, but as this eventually sunny afternoon in Tennessee unfolded, there was an air of common purpose to be found amongst everybody we spoke to. Strangers speaking to strangers, people freely speaking openly about where they were from, and, as mentioned further up this webpage, even the McDonalds in Decatur was closing to allow their staff to go outside. There seemed to be a real sense of unity amongst all of the people here.

As the stars and the odd planet became visible in the sky on an otherwise brightly lit day and a plane was heard in the sky possibly chasing the path, finally the climax of the day came into view:

Wow.

As totality came to an end, there was then an encore to the show. The Moon just having passed completely over the Sun brought about a phenomenon known as the “Diamond Ring Effect”. Some anomalies occurring in the photography which are non-natural here are typically caused by camera optics, but it sure makes for a superb picture:

The rest of the day was marked by avoiding the Interstate as it was gridlocked. Back-roads led to a much welcomed motel whereby it appeared pretty much that the rest of the continent north of Mexico was trying to get home after squeezing themselves into this narrow band, and  many would return back to their residencies with memories to cherish forever.

Back Home

The photograph above shows a selection of pre- and post- paraphernalia from the visit to the United States in August, 2017. Included here is a magazine (a newsstand special purchased in the UK prior to the trip), obligatory viewing “goggles”, a roadmap of Tennessee, the state where the eclipse was ultimately viewed from, and a set of US Postal Service commemorative stamps. These souvenir stamps were purchased from a Post Office in the centre of Chester, IL (A.K.A. “Home of Popeye”.) alongside a T-Shirt, which proudly displays the slogan “Twice in a Lifetime”. This town can boast the fact that it is in effect a juncture of two Total Solar Eclipses occurring within the space of under a decade. Something so rare, it is an extremely unlikely to occur within a human’s lifetime from any given point in the entire world. Whilst the path of the Eclipse in 2017 traversed the contiguous states south-eastwards from coast-to-coast (from Oregon to South Carolina), the next rare line of totality due to hit the USA will be on Monday April 8th 2026, passing right through Chester again on its way from Texas in an approximate northerly direction, right through to Upstate New York, New England and beyond. 2026 will also be the first Total Solar Eclipse visible from Canada since 1979 and the only one of this century to be visible in totality not only from Canada, but also from the US and Mexico as well. So... the author of this webpage has a dream to be in America for 2026 and as the other slogan touted by the lovely town of Chester, IL goes... See You in the Shadows!

Videos

Below are three videos taken on the day and are courtesy of the website author’s brother:

About the Photos on this Webpage

As a very amateur photographer and wishing to capture this moment in time presented some technical considerations. With no single lens reflex camera nor experience, the first consideration in order to be able to take the pictures shown on this webpage was to do so with a camera equipped with an appropriate  zoom lens (Canon Powershot, model SX540 HS, 20.3 Mega Pixels, 50x Optical Zoom). Some test shots of the Sun were taken from England prior to the trip to ensure the appropriate zoom on the lens, alongside a highly flexible sheet of Perspex filter to take the images through. This filter proved invaluable in the fact that whilst it was required to photograph the Sun prior to and immediately after the event of totality, the photographs taken during the two and a half-odd minute point of totality required complete removal of the filter due to the fact that as the Moon eclipsed the Sun, the sky rapidly went into darkness.

A Final few Notes:

I owe very big thanks and gratitude to my brother, Mark, for not just filming the embedded videos on this webpage, but also for doing all of the driving for which without this incredible experience would not have been possible.

Obligatory Notice:

*** NEVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT SPECIALISED VIEWING GOGGLES DESIGNED FOR THE SPECIFIC PURPOSE OF SOLAR OBSERVATION. DOING SO CAN VERY EASILY CAUSE IRREVERSIBLE DAMAGE TO THE EYES ***

If you were there by the Tennessee River to see the 2017 “Great American Eclipse", the Author would love to hear from you. Any videos or photographs you may have to share would be very much welcomed. We can share files on Dropbox or Onedrive, so please feel free to contact us using the feedback form on the link Here.

[Photos: 21 Aug 2017, Text: December 2017]

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