The much-talked-about eclipse of the sun, happening Aug. 21, will reach 94 percent in Olympia and environs. That sounds substantial, but to rewrite an old phrase: It’s close, but no corona.
In areas where the moon completely covers the sun (the nearest is central Oregon), observers will see the sun’s corona, the flames that come out of the sun. Stars will be visible. Day will turn to night, the temperature will drop, animals will fall silent, and flowers will close. If the horizon is in sight, the colors of sunset (or sunrise) will be seen all around.
“It’s something everyone should see at least once in their lifetime,” said Paula Szkody (pronounced Skody), an astronomy professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s so strange. The sky gets dark and there is this black object with a bursting circle of corona around it. It’s mystical.
“Once you see one, you want to see more,” she added. “That’s why there are so many fanatics.”
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Szkody, who describes herself as a fan but not a fanatic, has traveled to total solar eclipses in Hawaii and South Africa. A fanatic, she said, is someone who travels to every possible one.
A solar eclipse, in which the moon blocks the sun, happens about every 18 months somewhere in the world, when the orbits of sun, moon and earth align. It’s a phenomenon made possible by the coincidence that the moon is 400 times smaller than the sun and 400 times closer to the earth.
What distinguishes this eclipse — being called by some the Great American Eclipse — is that it will cross the entire continental United States, moving from west to east. That’s something that hasn’t happened in 99 years.
In a recent phone interview, Szkody found it difficult to imagine that anyone living this close to Oregon would be doing anything else but being there the morning of Aug. 21. “Partials aren’t anything, really,” she said.
The closest part of the zone is just south of Portland (which will reach 99 percent of totality), but seasoned eclipse watchers advise heading further east, since coastal communities often experience morning cloudiness that might hide the spectacle.
Szkody will be at an astronomy meeting in Sun Valley, Idaho. Amateur astronomer Jerry Eber of Lacey and astronomy student Shannon Pangalos-Scott of Olympia have both made reservations to be at the Oregon Star Party in the Ochoco National Forest near Prineville.
“Other years I’ve gone, they’ve had 450-500 people show up,” said Eber, a member of the Tacoma Astronomical Society. “This year they had to limit it to 900, and they booked up in four hours.
“I’m very excited to see it,” he said. “This will be my first total eclipse.”
There are, of course, some challenges to getting to the zone, particularly for those who haven’t planned ahead. Hotels and campgrounds are full. Some hoteliers canceled reservations made years in advance once they realized they could charge premium prices for the celestial event.
So South Sound enthusiasts are getting creative, staying with family members and friends. At least one is paying $600 to camp in a 20-foot-by-20-foot patch of an empty field in Madras, a plan made a few months ago.
If that sounds crazy, you probably haven’t seen an eclipse.
“Even if you have to camp in your car, it’s totally worth it,” Szkody said. And that is one of the few options for those who don’t already have plans — although the City of Salem, which is in the path, will allow camping in city parks the night before the eclipse.
If you’re willing and able to do that, there is at least one other obstacle between South Sound seekers and the zone of totality, where the sun will be hidden for less than 3 minutes. And it’s one with which many Western Washingtonians are all too familiar: traffic.
The Oregon Department of Transportation has issued dire predictions about how many people will be driving into the band of totality. The department has been telling people to expect the worst traffic event in the state’s history.
What will you see if you stay home?
If you have safe eclipse glasses — which are necessary to protect your eyes — you can see the sun becoming a smaller and smaller crescent. Shadows will get sharper, and the light will be dimmer.
You’ll be able to see crescents when the light is filtered, as through the leaves of a tree or with the use of a pinhole projector. (Some local events will offer the opportunity to make one, or see directions at jpl.nasa.gov/edu/learn/project/how-to-make-a-pinhole-camera/.)
“There are different ways you can observe the eclipse here,” said Pangalos-Scott, president of the Evergreen Astronomical Society and a junior studying engineering astrophysics. “It can still be an event that you’re going to remember.”
The Washington State Library in Tumwater, with help from the Evergreen and Tacoma astronomical societies, will host a free celebration during the event with eclipse discussions, eclipse glasses for the first 90 attendees, and a reflective projection viewing area where people without eclipse glasses can safely see what’s happening.
If that only whets your appetite, there will be other eclipses.
The next one visible in the United States will happen April 8, 2024, and stretch from Texas to Maine, according to Astronomy Magazine. But for one of this magnitude, the wait will be a little longer.
“There will be one that goes across most of the United States in 2045,” Szkody said. “People who miss it now who are still young have another chance — in 30-some years.”
What: The Aug. 21 eclipse will be the first in nearly 100 years to extend all the way across the United States.
When: In Olympia, the moon will begin to cover the sun at 9:07 a.m. Monday, Aug. 21, with the maximum coverage happening at 10:19 a.m. The sun will be completely uncovered again at 11:38 a.m.
Where: In Olympia, there’ll be a partial eclipse, with 94 percent of the sun obscured. The nearest place to view the total eclipse is in central Oregon.
Also: Glasses with solar filters (made of cardboard and Mylar) or No. 14 welding goggles are necessary for viewing an eclipse. The glasses cost about $2 and are available free at some eclipse events and at local O Bee Credit Union branches while supplies last. If you’re in an area where the eclipse is total, you can view the eclipse without eye protection only during the brief time when the sun is completely covered.
Local eclipse events
• Eclipse 101 with amateur astronomers Jerry Eber and Day Jackson — 6:30-7:30 p.m. Aug. 15, Olympia Timberland Library, 313 Eighth Ave. SE, Olympia. Free. 360-352-0595, trl.org.
• Solar Eclipse Fun — 2-3:30 p.m. Aug. 19, Yelm Timberland Library, 210 Prairie Park St. NE, Yelm. Free. 360-458-3374, trl.org.
• Eclipse Celebration with free eclipse glasses and speakers from the Tacoma and Evergreen astronomical aocieties — 8:30 a.m.-noon Aug. 21, Washington State Library, 6880 Capitol Blvd. SE, Tumwater. Free. 360-704-5200, sos.wa.gov/library/.