11 February 2024

Total Solar Eclipses and the Great American Eclipse on April 8, 2024

A total solar eclipse is one of the most amazing visual and sensory experiences you can find in nature, a combination of astronomical alignments and local phenomena that combine to dazzle us humans when we witness this spectacle. I caught the 'solar eclipse bug' decades ago and have traveled far and wide over the past years to be in the shadow of the moon many times. I find it to be a profoundly moving experience, and I am heading to the next one in April 2024 that will be visible across a large swath of North America. During a total solar eclipse, there are three broad categories of the experience. 

In no particular order: 

The Heavens Above:
an eclipse happens when the moon, sun and earth are perfectly aligned and the penumbral (dark) shadow of the moon traverses the earth's surface. During the partial phases, a little more than an hour long, the sky dims very gradually, but in the last 10 minutes before totality the change in the sky is dramatic, going from daytime blue to sunset blue. Planets are suddenly visible and a few bright stars as well. And then, when the moon fully covers the sun's disk, the image in the sky is stunning. For a few brief minutes you can view the eclipse without eye protection and see the outer atmosphere of the sun, the solar corona. If you have a telescope or binoculars, you can see the solar prominences, beautiful red flares that flow out from the solar surface. The images here were taken by amateur astronomers near my viewing site in Australia. 

The Earth Below: as the partial phases progress, the nature of the light changes as the light source, the sun, changes from a round ball to a crescent to an ever-diminishing point of light. The shadows on the ground develop sharp edges and the light of the sun filtering through trees takes on a crescent shape. The air cools noticeably, and the wildlife starts to react. I have been in many an eclipse where flocks of birds set flight just before or after totality. The rapid cooling of the air often leads to a light breeze. And the horizon become brighter than the sky above you as the shadow of the moon envelops you and everything around you. 

The Humans Around You: I enjoy going to eclipses where there are other people around me. Sometimes I lead a group, or other times I take part in a tour. Either way, I find it remarkable how the eclipse affects us as human beings, whether someone has seen many eclipses or is witnessing this for the first time. The buildup is so gradual and slow that you could barely notice unless you have a telescope with a solar filter (which I always have with me). But as the final minutes tick down to totality, there is a noticeable buzz in the people around you and at the last moment as the diamond ring effect takes place, there is an outcry from those around you ... a kind of group exhale combined with a primal scream ... because this incredible visual image appears magically in the sky. I enjoy the energy of this shared experience. 

There are so many aspects of eclipses to learn about, I cannot cover all of this in one blog post. So here are some helpful links for the curious reader.  

Third party posts: 

NASA Eclipse Website with focus on April 2024.

Great American Eclipse website with lots of resources and maps for April 2024. 

My own posts: 

Solar Eclipses and the Saros Cycle - a previous blog post focused on the celestial dynamics that underlie eclipses. 

2006 Eclipse in Turkey - a short blog post about my experience in Turkey in 2006.

2023 Eclipse in Australia - a short blog post about my experience in Australia in 2023.

Images courtesy of Aditya Madhavan. 

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