The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 could go down in history as one of the most spectacular examples of a natural phenomena hijacked by human hype and hyperbole.
That is until the next one comes along in 2024.
But for 10-year-old Kayla Cooks of Coupeville, it may prove a lasting memory of an intimate trip with her great-grandparents, Barbara and Thomas Fournier.
“I’m really excited. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I won’t be here next time,” Barbara Fournier said. “I don’t think Kayla really wraps her head around how significant this event is.”
While the day-turning-to-night phenomena of the Aug. 21 eclipse lasts just over two minutes, the Fourniers have turned the event into a four-day educational road trip with stops at numerous Oregon parks and whitewater rafting on the Deschutes River.
Fournier said she’s prepared for the crowds and over packed camping grounds in Oregon, where more than 1 million people are expected at eclipse viewing sites and events.
“We’re traveling with plenty of food, water, books, games, and shade protection,” she said. “We’re taking a pop-up shower tent and Porta Potti in case I can’t get to the restrooms through the crowds.”
Oregon, usually a serene laid back state, is suddenly in a state of eclipse manic panic because it’s the only West Coast location in the path of totality.
For the first time in 99 years, a total solar eclipse will cross the United States from coast to coast, from the beach town of Lincoln City, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. The perfect alignment of celestial objects will affect tens of millions of people within its 60-to-70-mile-wide swath of totality.
For 120 seconds, maybe 122 seconds, the moon’s shadow will shut out the sun. Lights out. Many other locations, such as Whidbey Island, will experience a partial eclipse, more like a dimmer switch.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown already declared a state of emergency, mostly to be prepared so state and local agencies can work together to respond to any problems. She’s also authorized the Oregon National Guard to deploy soldiers.
The eclipse is coinciding with a drought, wildfire season and a unique high tide on Oregon beaches.
But the talk of Oregon totality turmoil isn’t keeping Washingtonians away.
Eric Geyer and his family are heading to Madras, a town of 6,000 expected to balloon to 100,000. Considered one of the best viewing spots in the nation, it’s hosting the four-day Oregon Solarfest in partnership with NASA.
“We’ve planned it for awhile, five days of camping and all kinds of activities for the kids,” said Geyer who attended a recent presentation by the Island County Astronomical Society at the Coupeville Library.
Andy Nielsen and his wife, Ruth, gave the eclipse talk. They showed photographs and videos and described their personal experiences viewing total solar eclipses worldwide. The last one visible in the Northwest on Feb. 26, 1979, they took in from Ellensburg.
“All of a sudden, street lights turned on and the birds got absolutely silent,” Ruth Nielsen recalled. “Then as it got slightly brighter, the roosters went crazy. It was just a cacophony of noise. I think they were surprised because they had experienced two sunrises in one day.”
The temperature also dropped by some 20 degrees.
“It’s just absolutely spectacular,” she said.
People looking up from Whidbey Island will see a partial eclipse of about 90 percent, explained Andy Nielsen.
“This means once you put on your solar viewing glasses, you’d see 90 percent of the sun obscured by the moon,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like much but 10 percent of the sun is still a lot of illumination.”
From Whidbey, the eclipse will start at 9:06 a.m., reach its maximum at 10:19 a.m., and end at 11:41 a.m.
So where’s a good place to view it?
“Best place to see the eclipse is anywhere you have a clear view of the sun,” answered Bob Scott, president of the Island County Astronomical Society.
The partial eclipse may look like a dark illuminated circle or a crescent moon — bright enough to see and bright enough to blind.
Even if it’s a partial eclipse, it’s only safe to view with approved eye protection. Local libraries were giving them away during eclipse talks but none are left.
“It’s dangerous to look at with binoculars or through an unfiltered telescope,” warned Roger Kennedy, a retired NASA scientist who with his wife, Linda, also gave many eclipse tips talks, including one in Clinton.
“As the moon moves further off, you get more sunshine. You can keep looking, but all of a sudden, you’ll see white dots, and within 10 seconds, you’ll be permanently blinded. “
One of the most famous cases involved Sir Issac Newton who reportedly tried looking at the sun in a mirror, blinded himself for three days and saw sunspots for months afterwards.
Andy Nielsen warned anyone holding up their camera or cellphone to the eclipse without a proper filter won’t have a Facebook memory but a burned up eyepiece. Children younger than five years old shouldn’t view an eclipse.
Outside the Coupeville Library, Nielsen demonstrated “safe solar viewing.”
“You want to put them on looking down and then look up,” he said. “Anytime you see the surface of the sun, you have to wear these.”
In the last few seconds before an eclipse, a moment known as “the diamond ring” occurs when only a small part of the sun is still uncovered and it looks like a diamond ring. A phenomena known as Baily’s beads follows, which shows sunlight breaking through the valleys and landscapes of the lunar surface.
Then all goes dark. That’s when it’s safe to momentarily remove your glasses.
It’s a cosmic, life-changing, unworldly experience, say those who chase solar eclipses around the planet. It’s also a decisive moment, one that capture’s people’s attention and reminds them about the planetary rhythms of life, of night and day, of floating in space and revolving around a hot ball of gas.
A glorious moment for some, terrifying for others.
Describing her impressions of the 1979 total solar eclipse seen from Yakima Valley, writer Annie Dillard said: “I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.”
Of course, there’s another aspect of the sky that could eclipse the eclipse — clouds. Either the usual morning variety or those created by the collision of land and sea.
The effect of a sudden drop in air temperature caused by the sun’s disappearance could cause a marine layer to form over Puget Sound and clouds to form, explained Erika Harnett, a geophysicist who studies weather in space at the University of Washington Department of Earth and Space Sciences.
So she, like many other local weather and stargazing wonks are heading elsewhere, either east of the mountains or south to central Oregon.
Not all made plans years in advance.
“We’re taking the college kid approach and just heading south,” admitted Ruth Nielsen. “We’re not worrying where we’re staying, we’re just driving down I-5, heading south of Portland.
“Either we’ll be in the path of totality or stuck in the traffic jam trying.”
For more information visit http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEgoogle/SEgoogle2001/SE2017Aug21Tgoogle.html
There will also be an eclipse party in Langley at 10 a.m. on Aug. 21 along Cascade Avenue above the Langley Marina.