(N.B. this was written in two parts, the day before and the day after the total eclipse. These parts are labelled accordingly)
20/08/17, 16:24 PST: August has been an unexpectedly busy and scattered month for me. I had anticipated writing a number of pieces, and while several of these are either soon-to-be-published or ready to send off for consideration, a number of short trips have made it somewhat more tricky to write and research every day. At the time of writing I’m on another excursion (although this one has been planned for a while) to watch the total solar eclipse taking place in Madras, Oregon, on the 21st of August.
‘The Great American Eclipse’, as it is being referred to, will cross the mainland United States from central Oregon in the West all the way to South Carolina in the East. The number of people caught in the shadow of the moon will be unprecedented in the modern age, and unsurprisingly a huge number of people have been making the effort to drive somewhere where the eclipse will be total.
We have travelled to Madras, Oregon, where the climatic conditions indicate the lowest chance of cloud in the country. 100,000 others are expected to join here, all camping in the ‘Solartown’ that has been set up specifically for the event. Madras is a town of only 6,000, but the anticipated apocalyptic traffic tailbacks didn’t materialise; this may not be the case as visitors try to leave en masse tomorrow after the eclipse!
22/08/17, 22:20 PST: The clouds and smoke conditions were in our favour – we were able to see the total eclipse clearly, and it was truly a stunning event. I had been prepared for the dance of sun and moon together to be striking, but the effect on the surroundings was perhaps more memorable; time will tell.
It was suggested by other observers that we should, as observers, discuss what we were seeing through the eclipse from first contact all the way through totality until the sun returned at full strength. In the hour before totality we did just that, watching as the sun was gradually eaten into by the moon, noting minor changes in brightness and temperature. In the few minutes around the totality, however, it was hard to keep up; changes happened thick and fast.
Not only did temperatures drop noticeably, but the light level dropped so fast that one could see it shift second-to-second. And then, amid cheers from the thousands of others around, the moon finally obscured the orb of the sun completely; the wink of the diamond-ring-like ‘Bailey’s Beads’ was clear from our vantage point. We were transfixed by the blackened orb and the ring around for a few seconds, but quickly it became clear that there was visual magic happening elsewhere too.
We were fortunate with our location that we could see several of the volcanic peaks that make up the Cascade mountain range, including mounts Jefferson and Hood. The latter of these peaks was outside of the zone of totality, and while we were completely shaded by the moon we could still see this peak lit in the near twilight; further into the distance were other red-shaded peaks that were hitherto unseen behind haze. The whole horizon, in fact, was lit as if sunset was happening all around us; the transition between the deep blue-black sky above with pinpoints of stars and planets and the 360 horizon lit to near-scarlet was genuinely moving.
A quick aside to give a simplified explanation about what was happening: when sunlight hits the atmosphere, some portion of the light is scattered by the air molecules (Rayleigh scattering). This acts more strongly on the blue part of the sun’s spectrum of light – this gives the sky a blue colour during daytime. In the evening, the angle of the sun is such that direct light must pass through more of the atmosphere, which means more of the blue light is lost, and the result is that we see mainly the red light from the sun. This gives the emotive colours we attach the sunset.
In this case, the red light from the horizon wasn’t coming directly from the sun, which was covered above. Instead, this was diffuse light from all around; the longer path that this diffuse, reflected light had to take gave it the red colour.
Despite the dry, scientific explanation, I think there’s something truly amazing at play here. It only struck me afterwards, but this diffuse red glow on the horizon is always there when the sun is up; it’s normally hidden by the bright light of the sun, but one could poetically say that those sunset colours that prompt such emotional response in many people are always glowing.
The two minutes of total shadow were certainly fleeting; some observers stood silently; a few loosed fireworks, while many worked frantically at camera equipment. The emotional affect was clear, as the gasps and cheers of 100,000 or so were not subtle. One enthusiastic watcher near to us began to clap as the moon shifted away and the sun reappeared; he quickly ceased though – who was he applauding?
Nature has afforded us on Earth with a rare set of circumstances. The balance of the size of the moon to the distance to the sun is so perfect; a larger satellite would obscure the sun, but the ring of solar flares would be less visible, and the ‘sunset horizon’ would also be absent. A smaller moon wouldn’t throw such a large shadow on the Earth’s surface, and the stars wouldn’t be visible at 10.20 in the morning.
Awe and wonder at nature seem to be part of the human psyche. Very mundane parts of the human condition were on display only a minute or two after the totality subsided, however, as thousands tried to beat the traffic out of Madras, even while 95% of the sun was still obscured. I think it would be hard to forget those two minutes of darkness, though; it’s more than the sum of the parts involved in terms of the celestial mechanics. Offered the opportunity again, I would jump at the chance to see another.