This composite image details the progression of a total solar eclipse on Tuesday, July 2, 2019, that directly passed over the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. (NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth)

The Incredible Strangeness of a Total Solar Eclipse

And how to prepare for the total eclipse on April 8, 2024

A PARTIAL SOLAR ECLIPSE is to a total eclipse what a garden drizzle is to a mountain storm: light rain and pleasant greenery versus stacked, black thunderheads belching lightning, thunder, and hail. And so, those who have seen only a partial eclipse, when told about totality, imagine that it’s just a different version of the bite the Moon has taken out of the sun. That it’s somehow just more of the same, more of a partial eclipse.

It’s not. Not at all. If you’ve only seen partial eclipses, please know: They’re not anything like the complete disappearance of the sun. Partial eclipses take place in daylight, keeping animal senses intact. When totality comes, it’s a strange dusk, the strangest, and the sky, suddenly sunless, becomes a place you’ve never seen before. It’s the universe revealing itself through disappearance.

For me, that revelation is a form of fact-based wonder. For others, a total solar eclipse was—and, for some, still is—a moment of holy import. For example, among some Indigenous peoples, the eclipse has been a bad omen; for others, it’s a time when the Sun and Moon are in balance, a time when the Sun is about to be reborn. Some see the two heavenly bodies in a contest. Many have thought the eclipse was an animal or monster attacking the Sun. Some shot flaming arrows into the sky, hoping to end the terrible darkness. 

I know this interlude of light as one of awe, not fear, because I once stood in shock, gaping at the sky beside the scrawny waters of the Little Lost River in Idaho. There, with friends and a couple of strangers, we watched everything change.

Being a devout astronomy nerd, I had planned this encounter months ahead, scouting a spot near our cabin in Logan Canyon but away from expected crowds. A friend and I took a day trip into central Idaho and found a spot where several people could camp off the road. It was perfect. Two days before the eclipse, I drove there and set up several empty tents to indicate “This seat is taken.”

When the eclipse began, I showed friends the view through my ten-inch reflector equipped with a protective solar filter and an orange eyepiece filter to give something other than white light. Sunspots the size of planets lurked like spiders, like smudges. The Moon was an advancing dark arc. As totality neared, the light changed. I changed. I was jittery with excitement knowing I was about to witness one of nature’s most astonishing sights.

Images of a total solar eclipse, July 2009. (tonynetone/Flickr)

The air, dark and gray and silver and soft and very precise, pooled around every pore and shiver of skin, around every wild edge.

We gasped and I reached for my binoculars under a sky that showed planets. Just before the Sun was covered, its light passed through canyons of the Moon’s edge, hitting the tops of lunar mountains, bright points of light called “Baily’s beads.” 

Then the Sun vanished. 

A black circle remained. The river ran dark below, while above the corona brimmed with sprays of light. 

Read Christopher’s poem “We Need the Sky” about watching totality here.

We stood, some of us shivering in the cool air, looking at the solar flares like fire mountains and that bewildering corona, the crown of million-degree plasma, that beckoned and warned. Though I didn’t witness this myself, others reported seeing changes in animal behavior, like bats emerging and crickets singing. (If you want to help contribute to this under researched area, go here!)

That’s the best I can do. Totality was the weirdest exhilaration—skin-skittering, and earth-altering.

 

ON APRIL 8, this year, it will happen again. Scientifically speaking, total solar eclipses occur when, from a particular vantage, we see the face of the Moon completely cover the disk of the Sun. It’s an accident of physics. The Moon just happens to have the same apparent diameter of the Sun as seen from Earth right now. Put another way, the Sun is both four hundred times farther from us than the Moon and also four hundred times larger. This wasn’t always that case and it won’t be in the future, for the Moon is moving away from Earth at a rate of three millimeters a month. And if the Moon were not five degrees off the ecliptic—the plane of the solar system—we’d see a total solar eclipse every month!

Want to learn more about the moon? Take our Lunar Quiz and test your knowledge!

This spring will be your best chance to see a domestic total eclipse for the next twenty years, when North America is partially graced again on August 23, 2044. The next cross-continent total eclipse will be on August 12 the following year.

The 2024 totality will arc across a huge swath of the populated United States, from Texas into the Midwest and the Northeast. Millions of people are within or near the path of totality. Totality will enter the United States at 1:27 local time at Eagle Pass, Texas. The maximum length of totality is about four minutes. 

Unlike my wilder country eclipse in 2017, I’ll spend this one with my wife, Kathe, and my sister, Vicki, on the shared rooftop of her condo in downtown Indianapolis. I’ll bring solar eclipse glasses, of course, and perhaps my travel telescope with a solar filter attached to the end. If the skies are clear—and April in Indiana is questionable—we’ll watch as darkness falls over skyscrapers, the White River, and the streets I used to cruise in high school with friends and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s at hand.

This time, as the crescent shape disappears and the sky grows gauzy ashen gray, and the Moon covers the Sun entire, I expect another phenomenon I didn’t experience in Idaho: the roar of thousands of people looking up from city streets at a sky doing something most of them never thought it could.

 


You know the warning: Never look at the sun with your eyes. Not until totality.

Ready to watch the eclipse? Here are some safety tips, courtesy of NASA:

  • View the sun through eclipse glasses or a handheld solar viewer during the partial eclipse phases before and after totality.
  • You can view the eclipse directly without proper eye protection only when the moon completely obscures the sun’s bright face—during the brief and spectacular period known as totality. (You’ll know it’s safe when you can no longer see any part of the sun through eclipse glasses or a solar viewer.)
  • As soon as you see even a little bit of the bright sun reappear after totality, immediately put your eclipse glasses back on or use a handheld solar viewer to look at the sun.

Christopher Cokinos is the author or coeditor of several books, including Still as Bright: An Illuminating History of the Moon, from Antiquity to Tomorrow, The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds, and Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight. He is the winner of awards and fellowships from, among others, New American Press, the Whiting Foundation, the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, and the National Science Foundation. His poems, articles, and essays have appeared in such venues as Scientific American, High Country News, Astronomy, Orion, Discover.com, and the Los Angeles Times.