Chasing the Solar Eclipse

by Bill Kramer

I am an eclipse chaser. That sounds better than eclipse stalker, paparazzi, or voyeur which are more accurate terms. The shadow projected by the moon onto the Earth's surface is moving at such a speed that you would need a very fast aircraft just to keep up. And by fast I mean super-sonic! So you see there really isn't a chase involved except that you need to be in the right spot at the right time and hope the weather cooperates with your plans. This essay discusses those aspects of eclipse chasing.

If you stay in one place all your life, the chances of seeing a total solar eclipse are quite slim. That is because the shadow projected from the moon during a total solar eclipse traces a narrow path (about 100 miles wide) across the planet. As a consequence, in order to see one or more total eclipses of the sun one must travel to see them. And that is how you become an Eclipse Chaser.

In our modern era of travel virtually anyone can successfully get to the central path of a total solar eclipse at some point or another. Using luxury cruise ships, jet airplanes, and highways it is not as difficult as it used to be for astronomers and nature enthusiasts to see more than one total solar eclipse in their lifetime. I have had the pleasure of seeing over a half-hour of total eclipse time (over ten total solar eclipses to date) and I've met others who have been fortunate enough to see even more. All it takes is the desire to see one (or more). To see who is into eclipse chasing, visit the Eclipse-Chasers Log. It is an ever growing community.

Eclipse chasing can be broken down into five basic steps.

1) Select an eclipse you want to see - Start with these NASA produced maps: 2001-2020, 2021-2040. The blue paths are where it will be total. When you have picked out an eclipse that may be interesting move on to getting more a detailed map. Tables of eclipses with maps can be referenced from the NASA Eclipse web site.

2) Study the path of the eclipse with a focus on climate and travel logistics. You may have selected an eclipse that is relatively near your home location. That will make the detail gathering a lot easier. Otherwise consult the web for statistical information in the region. Two of my favorite starting points are www.wunderground.com and www.weather.com - in both you can find information about major airports around the world that may be near to the eclipse path. When looking at statistical data try to include the time of day as well as day of the year.

3) Detailed site study - on site visit if possible. This is where being close to the eclipse path helps. You may already know all about the places to set up for the eclipse. Otherwise visiting the location a year in advance (or more) is advised. Some of the things to look for in selecting an eclipse site are view (good horizon view towards approaching and departing shadow), comfort (restrooms, some shade, refreshments), mobility (nearby usable roads, alternative sites), and information (access to news or the web). You don't need all of these items for a good eclipse site - these are just ideas. Group tours often scout out the site(s) in advance and thus I recommend them when traveling someplace unfamiliar.

4) Equipment preparations and practice - deciding what to bring along to observe and/or photograph and eclipse is half the fun. For more information about photographic options visit the photography of solar eclipses web page. The concept of practice may seem a bit odd but it is recommended to hone your photographic and observing techniques using the moon as the target. If you don't have a clue as to what to bring then pack binoculars and a regular camera. The binoculars will provide great viewing.

5) Packing and travel to the eclipse site - can be the easiest or the most difficult step of the way. Because you might have to travel to different parts of the world the expense and restrictions imposed by such travel can be the most challenging. Small, light weight, and easy to repair are three basic guidelines for any sort of travel gear. And make sure you carry your more expensive and essential items yourself. That is the only way to be sure they arrive with you.

Solar Eclipse Chasing Issues

So what kind of problems and puzzles must the eclipse chaser solve? Read on!

Travel

Only during the last quarter of the 20th century has it become possible for so many people to have the opportunity to see an eclipse. In the past one had to endure long and difficult travel to see a solar eclipse or be lucky enough to have one occur near their location. The options today are plentiful. You can travel by air or sea to other continents, then use local transportation options such as a train , a bus, or a rental car. Tour groups often travel by bus and in some parts of the world, that may be the only desirable way to go - in a luxury tourist bus with air conditioning! Travel is not for everyone, although the options today are much better than they were just over 100 years ago. The eclipse chaser of the 19th century had to endure much greater hardships.

The best way to observe a total solar eclipse in luxury is to travel by cruise ship to the central path. Joining hundreds of other eclipse chasers on a cruise ship is a memory that you will not soon forget. A cruise ship offers two features not always available to land based observers and that is mobility and great weather information. Unless the weather situation is hopeless over a large area, there is a good chance the cruise ship will be able to position itself under a clearing.

Weather planning

"Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get." Using the web it is possible to learn the climate of almost any locality in the world. Climate studies over the past decades have produced some excellent resources for large regions. The requirements of international air travel have resulted in a tremendous resource for statistical data gathered at airports all over the world. Just a few decades ago this information was not so easy to locate except in well populated sections of the planet. Before the advent of satellites the only way to build weather statistics was to have a trained observer making the records. The more remote a location, the fewer the observations, and many locations have only a single report every couple of decades at best. Selecting a location based on weather statistics does require a bit of research. Simply looking at temperature or cloud cover charts may not be enough. During the course of a day, the weather will change and it is important to look at the climate of the region, the influences of the topography, and surrounding regions. Sometimes a micro-climate can be the difference between seeing the eclipse or just watching the clouds go dark. My best suggestion to the serious eclipse chaser is to start with the data you can obtain and then try to visit the location a year or so before the eclipse. Talk with some of the people who have lived there for a long time and ask about common weather patterns. Especially those patterns surrounding the time of the upcoming eclipse event.

Location

Calculating the exact location of a total solar eclipse is not easy. The method commonly used involves a series of equations that collapse on the ideal answer by repeated iteration with ever improving "guesses" at the correct answer. Think about it; you want to calculate the position of a shadow that falls on a sphere that is rotating and moving relative to the light source and the object casting the shadow (which is also moving). Remember,the size of the shadow is under 100 miles across when it intersects the surface of the Earth. That's not very big when you consider that the Earth is about 7900 miles across at the diameter, the Moon a quarter million miles distant, and the sun another 93 million miles away. In eclipse predicting, a slight error may make the difference between seeing a total eclipse of the sun or a partial eclipse as you stand just outside of the central line of the shadow. Because the method used to calculate eclipse circumstances is iterative, it is well suited to solution by computer. Instead of carrying out the laborious computations yourself, you can download programs that do it for you! Even then, I recommend double checking your numbers with others.

Once the general area for observing the eclipse has been determined, the next problem is to select a specific viewing location. The area selected should also be free of tall buildings, trees, mountains, or other features that could block your view of the sun during the eclipse. Wildlife and grazing animals should be avoided since they may react oddly to the eclipse event. On site visits ahead of time are highly recommended and one of the primary reasons for going with a group (the group leaders and travel agents will have performed the scouting visits).

Politics and other animals

Another factor that can play heavily on eclipse chasing is the political climate of the area where an eclipse will occur. It would not be advisable to attempt to observe an eclipse near a war zone or in a country undergoing civil war or in a high crime area where bandits roam freely. Can you imagine what it would have been like to chase a solar eclipse in the wild frontiers or in an unmapped jungle or in the middle of a country torn apart by war and civil unrest?

The weather, political climate, and difficulty to reach the eclipse path have played an important part in eclipse observations. For most people in past times travel was not something they took on lightly and as a result it was unusual for someone to have seen a total solar eclipse that did not occur in the near vicinity of where they lived. And it was very unusual for someone to see more than one unless they lived in the right area of the world where more than one occurred in their lifetime.

Animals will react to the solar eclipse. Domestic herd animals will head for shelter as if night was setting in. Wild animals will also react as if night has come. Although it may sound exotic to observe a total solar eclipse in the wilds, one growl from the tall grass or jungle will set your nerves on edge (and may cause you to suffer from operator malfunction of the camera or telescope). The best thing to do is be aware of the wildlife in the area when observing in undeveloped areas. My own experiences have been wonderful when accompanied by knowledgeable guides who knew and understood the animals around us. Even so, hearing a tiger or lion roar just a few hundred meters from you can be unsettling.

The main issues confront the eclipse chaser during the planning stages. Once a location has been determined, then basic logistics of any vacation destination kick into play such as selecting a hotel, lodge, camp, cruise ship, airline travel, and so forth. With all these details to be considered it is highly recommended for most people that you join a group. First time eclipse chasers will greatly appreciate having a group leader walk them through the preparations and point out the items "not to miss" during the eclipse event. Experienced eclipse chasers will enjoy the company and friendships gained by a common experience and interest. Eclipse travel groups are plentiful and there really are no bad ones. The best way to select a group is to join up with one going someplace you want to go in addition to the eclipse central line. Then select the group that seems to fit your desired comfort level - after all, eclipse chasing is a vacation experience and you should enjoy it as much as possible.

Why chase a Total Solar Eclipse?

If you are asking this question then the chances are very good that you’ve never seen a total solar eclipse. Otherwise you are probably reading this to find out what my answer is to this often asked question. When you tell someone about the solar eclipse experience they normally just smile that smile that indicates they don’t really get it. You can see it in the eyes. Eyes that have seen a total solar eclipse seem to hold something different when the topic comes up in conversation.

For the benefit of the eclipse novice all I can say is that an eclipse is an astronomical event that does not have any parallel. And it is too short to be fully observed by those of us that like to observe things in the sky.

I’ve been an amateur astronomer for several decades and still enjoy looking at the moon and planets through a telescope even though I’ve probably logged several hours of time looking at them. If you have a telescope set up on a planet or the moon I will take a look through it. And I can’t explain to you why I find that interesting except to say that I do. A total solar eclipse lasts only a few minutes each time you see it. Unlike looking through the telescope with magnification at something that normally is quite small to the eye an eclipse is an all sky phenomenon from horizon to horizon with details around the moon that beckon the eye to the telescope. But it is over all too quickly and the only thing you can do is ask when the next one will be and try to get back in the path of the shadow again.

My wife has a casual interest in astronomy. That is to say she will look through a telescope if I tell her it is something very special and worth coming out into the cold or bug filled night. But she still enjoys total solar eclipses, the social nature of the event, and the travel to get to there. On the topic of travel, a solar eclipse provides an opportunity to visit some place in the world you would never consider otherwise. That can be very special such as an African safari or a cruise across the ocean.

Eclipse chasing is travel with a purpose. Although most travel might be considered to have a special purpose eclipse chasing is one of those rare situations where the purpose is a climatic event. Even if you are not a sky watcher or astronomer, you cannot help but be caught up in the excitement.

My recommendation is that the eclipse novice needs to come along to an eclipse and experience it for themselves. I’ve seen all sorts of reactions from people and there is no way to know what yours would be until you join us under the shadow of the moon.

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