Why I chase eclipses

How to safely view the eclipse of the century
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Story highlights

  • David Dickinson: For umbraphiles, or eclipse chasers, like me, the upcoming solar eclipse is the moment we've been waiting for
  • Those who've witnessed eclipses describe it as a brief moment when reality is turned on its head and a beautiful darkness descends

David Dickinson is a freelance science writer, US Air Force veteran and long-time amateur astronomer. Follow him on Twitter @Astroguyz. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It reads like the plot of a bad zombie movie. Across the United States, officials are urging citizens to prepare, warning of traffic jams, wifi outages and shortages of alcohol and porta-potties.

Eclipse madness is upon us, as millions are set to meet the shadow of the moon as it slides across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina over a 90 minute span, promising up to two minutes and 40 seconds of totality (the brief span of time when the moon completely covers the sun) along the 70-mile-wide track.
David Dickinson
While most folks just started hearing about the eclipse, a small community of eclipse chasers -- known as umbraphiles, or "shadow lovers" who chase the dark inner shadow of the moon -- have been planning for this one for decades.
    Why do eclipse chasers engage in extreme astronomy, courting civil war zones and lost luggage filled with precious astronomical gear for a few seconds in the moon's shadow?
    Everyone I've talked to describes the experience of witnessing totality during a total solar eclipse (it is important here to distinguish between an "eclipse" which could simply be partial) and the moments of totality as, well, a singularly indescribable experience. For a moment reality is turned on its head. The sky takes on a haunting Lovecraftian beauty, or so I've been told, a strange sort of darkness at midday that even makes nature take pause. There's something primal about it.
    I remember watching the partial phases of the last total solar eclipse to graze the contiguous United States back in 1979. Then 2017 seemed so far away, a date impossibly far off in my adult life. Now, just under four decades and half a dozen smartphone generations later, we're poised to witness the greatest of celestial spectacles.
     Partial solar eclipse over NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building on November 3rd, 2013
    I soon found out that chasing totality meant travel to the far regions of the globe. Remote places such as the Sahara desert and the Arctic seem to be "eclipse magnets," a testament to just how much of the planet is still wild and uninhabited. Partial solar eclipses are relatively easy to catch, and lunar eclipses only require that you're on the correct moonward-facing hemisphere of the Earth to see them. Still, my professional life in the US Air Force always seemed to place me on the exact wrong hemisphere of the Earth to see a total solar eclipse.
    Sure, I did manage to catch the rising partial solar eclipse over NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center along the Florida Space Coast on November 3, 2013, and journeyed to the shores of Lake Erie on May 10, 1993 to witness an annular solar eclipse. This is a type of eclipse where the moon is too distant to completely cover the sun and instead appears as a brilliant annulus or "ring of fire," punched into the daytime sky.
    Still, totality eluded me. Umbraphile friends assured me that the difference between a partial and total solar eclipse was like the difference between getting to first base and a home run. I barely missed moving to Italy with a new assignment in time for the August 11, 1999, total solar eclipse across Europe.
    Like so many other Americans and folks traveling from abroad, I'll at last witness my first total solar eclipse on August 21. The community of dedicated umbraphiles is tiny, numbering in the hundreds. I'm planning on greeting the moon's shadow on eclipse day at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in the southwestern corner of North Carolina for a glorious 107 seconds of totality.
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    Of course, it is a minor act of hubris to make our stand on the dividing line of the Appalachians on an August afternoon. A passing cloud band could easily steal the show. Die hard eclipse chasers have, for the most part, staked out their claims to watch the eclipse out west around Wyoming or Idaho, where the weather prospects are best. Still other friends have actually booked multiple hotel rooms out along the eclipse path and plan to "pull the trigger" on travel the day prior according to the weather prospects.
    And while this upcoming total solar eclipse will doubtless spawn a new generation of dedicated eclipse chasers along the track of totality, millions more outside the path will pause, look up sunward with their newly purchased solar viewing glasses at the partially eclipsed sun and wonder what all the fuss was about.
    Speaking of which, looking at the sun during an eclipse can cause serious damage to your eyes. The brief time of totality is the only period you can directly look at the sun unprotected -- and you need to be sure you can correctly judge when the eclipse is total. You need proper eye protection -- approved solar glasses with an ISO 12312-2 rating, or a telescope or binoculars with a solar filter affixed to the front designed specifically to view the sun -- during all of the partial phases of the eclipse. But beware -- some vendors have been selling bogus solar glasses. The simplest way to view the partially eclipsed sun is to project its image onto a plain white surface using a pinhole projector.
    I also plan on taking the sage advice of many an experienced umbraphile, and simply enjoy my first total solar eclipse. The event is too fleeting, we're often admonished, to spend precious seconds tinkering with camera settings and varying exposure times.
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    Certainly, we're privileged to live in this moment in time and space when eclipses are possible. It's a happy circumstance that the sun, which is 400 times larger in diameter than our moon, is also roughly 400 times farther away from the earth. This situation is changing, however, as the moon slowly recedes from the Earth to the current tune of 1.5 inches a year, about the same rate as the growth of human fingernails. Already, annular eclipses where the apparent size of the moon is too small to cover the sun are more common than total eclipses in the current epoch, and about 600 million years from now, total solar eclipses will cease to occur altogether.
    Perhaps this total solar eclipse will serve as a springboard to re-energize interest in science. Clouded out? Well, we've even got a rain date for the August 21 eclipse, as the moon's shadow once again crosses the United States from the southwest to the northeast on April 8, 2024.
    And that one goes right over my hometown of Presque Isle, Maine.
    I already know where I'll be.