Solar Eclipse 2024: Chasing Totality

Back in 2016, Stephan and I spent two months traveling around eastern Australia during a year-long backpacking trip. During that time, we spent a week in the Blue Mountains with one of many gracious Airbnb hosts we met along the way. His name was Keith. Keith loved birds, his lush garden, classical music, unconventional television shows (ever seen Luke Warm Sex?), and solar eclipses. He loved eclipses so much, in fact, that he spent his resources chasing them around the globe.

As we joined our host one evening for an episode of comedian Luke McGregor’s very revealing documentary, Keith excitedly detailed an eclipse that would be passing through the United States the following summer. To our surprise, he went on to say that he’d even already made plans to travel to the western U.S. to witness the celestial spectacle. While we’d never seen a total eclipse ourselves, we were shocked that someone would fly to the other side of the world for such a thing. He assured us it was something unforgettable. Before we left his home in Wentworth Falls, Keith gifted us a handful of eclipse glasses from his impressive stockpile. As we waved goodbye, we vowed to use them to chase totality.

While we were touched by the sentimental gesture, we didn’t exactly know what to do with the fragile eyewear given we’d be living out of a couple of backpacks for another nine months. In the interim, I tucked them carefully into the pages of my travel journal as we wrapped up our tour Down Under. A few weeks later, after collecting a handful of mementos and gifts for family members, we added the glasses to the package and shipped it all back to the states.

Seventeen months to the day after leaving Keith’s quaint garage suite in New South Wales, Stephan and I found ourselves in Greenville, South Carolina for the eclipse – anxiously awaiting our two minutes and ten seconds of totality. Along with us was Sanchez, our rescue pup and yet another unexpected keepsake we’d picked up during our year-long, cross-continental journey.

We were eager, curious to see what was about to unfold. While we only had to drive 260 miles from our home in North Carolina to reach the path of totality, we’d been in touch with Keith who, indeed, was gazing skyward in Wyoming after his 8,300-mile journey. As the moon began transiting the sun, we were still questioning if any two-minute event could possibly warrant such a pilgrimage. Decked out in our dorky orange glasses from Oz, we were about to find out.

At 2:38 p.m., we pulled down our glasses, gazing spellbound from our grassy bump in Legacy Park as the moon covered the sun. As day briefly became night, the temperature plummeted. The few low-hanging cumulus clouds vanished in an instant. And the soulful sound of crickets, cicadas and all those other nocturnal insects all at once filled the stagnant air. Then, just as quickly as night had set in, daytime returned. In what seemed like the world’s fastest sunrise, the mercury soared; the nighttime critters silenced their song; and the diurnal songbirds resumed their chirping. One hundred thirty seconds later, it was like nothing had changed. However, everything had changed.

It felt as if twenty-four hours had passed in two minutes. However, it felt as if the world had stopped, not sped up. The whole spectacle was so surreal. It felt visceral. Primal, even. It’s hard to put into words. It leaves you wondering ‘what the hell just happened?’ despite knowing full well what just happened. It gives you a sense of empathy for ancient civilizations who looked up at this alien event in the sky, convinced a world-ending fate had befallen them.

In the days following the 2017 eclipse, news networks had already begun hyping up the next time the moon’s shadow would race across the U.S. On April 8, 2024, the umbra would race at more than 2,000 miles per hour along a 115-mile-wide path from Texas to Maine. With the path crossing the northern corner of the New England states, we were psyched that our families might get the rare opportunity to experience the inexplicable awe of totality. However, we also knew that it would likely never happen. It was April in New England – a time where northern New Hampshire averages just four days of sunny skies a month. However unlikely it may be for them to enjoy a spring eclipse, we could always dream…

You never know where seven years will take you. For us, seven years led us through a three-year stint in North Carolina; a worldwide pandemic that catapulted us back into nomadic life; and a four-year journey across three dozen states and six Canadian provinces that, coincidentally, culminated in an unexpected return to New Hampshire just six weeks before the day of the April 8th eclipse.

We never expected we’d be back in New England. And however unlikely still, we were thrilled to have even the slightest chance to witness another eclipse, this time with family. In the days leading up to the event, I obsessed over the weather like a shuttle engineer monitoring launch commit criteria, desperately trying to assemble a plan. I did this during a late-season, multi-day snowstorm that was actively dumping a foot of snow and ice on our tiny cottage in Laconia, all while gusty winds toppled trees around us and knocked out power to nearly a quarter of the state. Needless to say, things were not looking great at this point.

After developing a primitive plan for viewing the eclipse from some random lake in Stark, New Hampshire, I scrapped it all for a more sophisticated itinerary in Waterbury, Vermont. Much to our delight, our parents had decided to accompany us. Consequently, we knew they’d need something more polished than ‘sitting on a picnic blanket in the snow/mud with a PB&J and having no access to a bathroom for twelve hours.’ As such, my revised itinerary for Waterbury included a nice walk to the Ben & Jerry’s factory, a well-manicured greenspace, two breweries, a pizza parlor, and plenty of port-a-potties thanks to the city’s fastidious planning committee.

On Friday, April 5th, we eagerly finalized ‘Operation: Waterbury’ with both our families. The next day, Stephan and I drove south to spend the rest of the weekend with my parents and watch The Wolfpack play in the Final Four. We planned to head to Waterbury from there. Later that night, however, the forecast for Vermont began deteriorating quickly with some high clouds now portending a hazy view. My stress level was on the rise. By Sunday, the weather was looking even less ideal, with low- to mid-level clouds now threatening to move in an hour before totality. At 7 p.m. the night before the eclipse – just ten hours before we planned to get in the car – I ditched ‘Operation: Waterbury’ with the hysteria of a frenzied Muppet. It was now a hastily thrown-together Plan C: Colebrook, New Hampshire.

By then, I was fraught with anxiety, worried that our parents wouldn’t be on board with the eleventh-hour change. Given the precariousness of weather with all our high-elevation scrambling, Stephan and I are used to last-minute clusterfucks. Our parents, though, are a bit less impulsive. My parents, however, immediately committed to Colebrook. With that, Stephan hesitantly called his dad… who had also managed to miraculously score a last-minute, nonrefundable hotel reservation in Waterbury for the night after the eclipse. Much to our surprise, though, he was also in for Colebrook – despite being out for the cost of the hotel room.

At 4 a.m. the next morning, I awoke with trepidation to cabinets banging in the bathroom, the glare of the hallway light pouring in from under my bedroom door, and footsteps pounding down the wooden staircase. My parents had planned to get up at five, so this flurry of activity was highly unusual. My mind instantly raced. Had they simply misplaced something when they moved all the shit out of their medicine cabinet? Was someone sick? COVID seemed unlikely. Maybe it was bad chicken from the night before. Maybe my dad shouldn’t have split that can of sardines with Sanchez. Would they miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime event? Maybe I was being paranoid… I should just lay there and relax.

When I heard the oil kick on a few seconds later, that was it. I was now convinced that someone was near death downstairs. I had learned from a very young age from my penny-pinching dad that we do not for any reason turn the oil on in that house. The house is to be heated with wood and wood alone. If you’re cold, ‘put on a damn sweatshirt.’

I raced downstairs to find my mom sitting in her favorite recliner, fresh-faced and wet-haired, drinking her hazelnut Dunks as my dad pilfered through the fridge for his OJ. I imagine I looked like one hell of a disheveled deer in the headlights. Apparently, as they do every year – so they admitted – they forgot to double check the alarm after springing forward for daylight savings. I have never been so happy to hear the words ‘that stupid alarm clock gets us every year.’

A few hours later, after my cortisol levels had returned to near baseline, we arrived in Colebrook – a tiny town of 2,000 people that sits just ten miles south of the Canadian border. The traffic we had feared had been nonexistent; and all three of our cars pulled into the Gould Street lot within minutes of each other. With five hours until the eclipse started, we had plenty of time to chat and visit. We strolled through the small downtown, enjoyed a picnic in our lawn chairs, set up our tripods and lenses, and made use of the row of nearby port-a-potties that our parents were super grateful to find.

As the day went on, we reveled in the geniality around us. Everyone was just thrilled to be there, and content to share that excitement and gratitude with those around them. We met a lovely couple from Amherst (NH) and their pup, Millie. Millie was a rescue from Puerto Rico – scruffy and sweet like Sanchez, and with some of the same challenges that had been imprinted from her early days of life on the streets. We exchanged stories and training strategies, and genuinely enjoyed their company. Others around us were equipped with all kinds of gadgets and gizmos for viewing, and all were happy to share their fun as the eclipse began. There was a real sense of joy and camaraderie in our little lot – a stark contrast to the acrimonious discord that has come to define and divide our society over the last several years. While the transient magic was much like Cinderella’s night at the ball, the sense of childlike wonder that united the crowd was such a refreshing reset.

Most importantly, though, the weather was perfect. You could not have dreamed up better conditions for an early April day in northern New Hampshire. One week later as I write this, I am still in disbelief. The sun was shining brilliantly; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky (nor one in the forecast); the air quality was flawless; the breeze was light; and it was a balmy 60 degrees. Of all the spots along the 1,900-mile-long arc from Texas to Maine, the New England states were the absolute last place you’d expect to find the most impeccable viewing conditions.

At 3:28 p.m., the moon positioned itself perfectly between Earth and sun and we were plunged into a cold darkness. For three minutes of totality, we stood mesmerized by the otherworldly sight overhead – a pitch-black orb backlit by the burning wisps of the sun’s pure white corona. That same visceral feeling that had washed over us in 2017 had returned with the same intensity and dreamlike quality seven years later. My mom, the one I thought would be least interested, was brought to tears just as I had been seven years prior. It’s hard to not be. Anything that can make you feel that kind of raw emotion is deeply special. The whole thing is unquestionably one of the most humbling and awe-inspiring experiences I can imagine.

After a picture-perfect day, the only thing less than perfect was the drive home. While we expected traffic, we never anticipated anything quite like this. It took us nine hours to drive the 110 miles back to Laconia – a trip that should have taken just two. I have never, ever seen anything like it. At one point, it took us four hours to drive just over four miles. Each time the speedometer would crest five miles an hour, we were elated. It almost felt like we were going eighty.

By the time we got home at 1 a.m., we both agreed we felt like ‘boiled crap.’ Apparently, Harry Dean Stanton’s cameo in the Two and a Half Men episode we’d watched the night before the eclipse proved to be prophetic. With just one road for miles and miles with nothing on it, half the exits blocked off along I-93, and nowhere to stop, we were both too afraid to eat or drink anything.

Part of the reason for the mess – you know, in addition to the influx of 54,000 cars – was the Franconia Notch section of I-93. For those who haven’t visited the Notch, it’s beautiful. And as we learned from our recent peak-bagging excursions, you’ll even find a sign here touting the section of road as one of only two spots in the country were an interstate becomes a scenic parkway. This ‘super-two’ (one lane in each direction) even required a special act of Congress to circumvent national highway system standards. I guess it’s a cute novelty… until the rare happenstance where 50,000 vehicles all try to funnel through it at once.

Sixty or so miles further west, our parents fared slightly better on I-91, the artery that runs between NH and VT. My parents completed their 188-mile trip (typically 3.5 hours) in 7 hours. Stephan’s folks finished their 243-mile journey (normally 4 hours) in 9 hours. And while ours may have been a staggering four and a half times longer than normal, we at least weren’t driving a Tesla.

Despite the long ride home, we’d do it all again in a heartbeat. It was so cool to be able to share a once-in-a-lifetime experience with our parents, and to watch their faces fill with that same awe as they gazed skyward at the celestial magic. After having six weeks of the most incessantly dreadful weather I’ve ever seen, I still can’t believe that on the day of the eclipse – and on the heels of a late-season blast of snow – we were treated to such flawless conditions.

As for Keith and his unusual hobby? We understand the fascination much more now. And we hope he’s still out there somewhere pursuing paths of totality. It still seems a little wild, but perhaps it really is something worth circumnavigating the globe to see. It certainly makes a great excuse to go explore someplace new.

In a few years, perhaps we’ll be following in Keith’s eclipse-chasing footsteps. 2027 teases the eclipse of the century (provided there are no clouds) when six full minutes of totality will darken the deserts of Egypt around Luxor and the Great Pyramids. It’s certainly tempting. And who knows? Maybe we’ll bump into Keith while we’re there. If we do, we can thank him for gifting us a few pairs of silly paper eclipse glasses that would change our lives forever.

Weird science

With all things sentimental come all things scientific. Since you should know by now that you can’t follow that nerd without being subjected to something nerdy, here’s a little fun science and cultural history behind solar eclipses. After all, it’s important to know a bit about what we’re all gazing up at with such amazement.

How did ancient civilizations react to eclipses?

Many ancient cultures viewed eclipses as ominous, even apocalyptic. Rightfully so when you think about it. What would be going through your head if daytime suddenly and inexplicably turned to night in a matter of seconds? And then changed back? We have the gift of so much knowledge in modern society that’s it’s hard to imagine not having explanations for something so seemingly trivial.

Many civilizations – Aztec, Incan, Mayan, Greek and Egyptian alike – saw an eclipse as a sign of the gods’ displeasure and some associated the eclipse with death. In ancient China, people thought the sun was being eaten by a dragon, and would even bang drums to scare the mythical beast away.

In ancient Mesopotamia (the area of present-day Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria), astronomers were known for their exceptional skill in predicting eclipses. However, that didn’t necessarily dispel the associated fear. Mesopotamian cultures also believed eclipses to be omens, and an example of such was seen in Assyria’s substitute king. The earliest known ritual took place in 19th century BCE. In the days leading up to an eclipse, the Assyrian ruling class would instate a temporary king that would act as a decoy for the true royal head of state. The substitute “king” was given a counterfeit “queen” and, just to be safe, both were sacrificed when the threat (in this case, totality) had passed.

A ‘beautiful coincidence’

Dr. John Mulchaey, an astronomer from the Carnegie Institution for Science, calls the precise alignment of Earth, moon and sun – and the ensuing visual effect we see during totality – a ‘beautiful coincidence.’ Indeed, when you consider how perfectly the stars (literally) have to align to bring us to this moment, you realize just how unbelievable the concurrence is.

The sun is about 400 times larger than the moon, and is located about 400 times further from Earth than the moon. This perfect ratio creates the illusion of the two bodies being the same size during totality. However, total eclipses didn’t always look this way, and won’t always look this way. When the moon first formed, it was about seventeen times closer to Earth. And because the moon is drifting from Earth at a rate of about 1.5 inches per year, the moon will be so far away in another 50 million years that it won’t completely cover the sun.

If you compress the age of the Earth and moon (around 4.6 billion years) into one-hour on a clock, 50 million years is about 38.5 seconds. In the blink of a geological eye, this perfect geometry will be gone, and any of our remaining descendants will only see annular eclipses (‘ring of fire’).  If that doesn’t make you feel lucky enough, consider that modern humans have been here for just one-tenth of a second on that same one-hour clock. It truly is mind-blowing that we get to experience this.

How about that corona?

The most prominent and, perhaps, most exciting part for most eclipse viewers in the sun’s corona. This outermost layer of the sun’s atmosphere becomes visible as the moon fully covers the surface of the sun, creating the dramatic backlight for the moon’s jet-black silhouette. Aside from the few minutes during totality where the corona becomes visible to the naked eye, you need special instruments to view this feature.

Interestingly, the corona is about two hundred times hotter than the surface of the sun – a bit counterintuitive, given this layer of gases is much further away from the sun’s denser core. While the sun’s surface temperature is around 5500°C (10,000°F), the corona reaches temperatures of around 1 million degrees C (2 million degrees F). The reason for this incredible disparity in temperatures is still unknown, with astrophysicists still trying to determine a definitive answer.

When the sun is fully blocked out during totality, the corona is about as bright as a full moon, which is why it’s safe to remove your eye protection. The uneclipsed sun is between ten thousand and one million times brighter.

With the sun at solar maximum (highest rate of activity) during this year’s eclipse, scientists predicted the corona would be larger, brighter, and have more helmet streamers than the 2017 eclipse (when the sun was nearing solar minimum). We wondered if this would actually be noticeable, given that (1) we’re total novices, and (2) seven years had elapsed since we’d last observed totality. Much to our surprise, the difference between the two eclipses was shocking. The corona looked so much more impressive this time around, and really amplified the silhouette of the moon.

Additionally, the coronal (helmet) streamers were also insanely striking this go-around. These wispy, pointed structures were named for their resemblance to the spiked headgear worn by Prussian and German soldiers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Helmet streamers form when plasma becomes trapped in strong magnetic fields that overly sunspots (active regions of the sun). The tapered, tendril-like projections are then stretched outward by solar winds blowing away from the sun. The streamers radiating out from behind the moon this time were just jaw-dropping.

What about those pink spots in the pictures?

Just before totality, many people observed a few hot pink/reddish spots poking out from behind the moon’s periphery. While some thought they were solar flares, they were actually solar prominences – huge pieces of plasma that originate in the sun’s lower atmosphere (photosphere) and extend outward through the chromosphere and into the corona.

Incredibly, these loop-like structures can be hundreds of thousands of miles long (check out the scale). Solar prominences are much longer-lived than solar flares, hanging around for days to months rather than just minutes to hours. Their hot pinkish-red color is due to hydrogen, which emits red light at very high temperatures.

Want to photograph the ‘diamond ring?’

The diamond ring appears seconds before totality and seconds after – just as the last rays of light are being snuffed out by the moon, and as the first rays of light reappear as the moon then pulls away. As you can probably intuit, the effect is named for its resemblance to a diamond engagement ring. If you want to photograph the diamond ring, you’ve got to be quick with that shutter button. You’ve got maybe 10 or 20 seconds at best to capture the fleeting phenomenon.

Since you really shouldn’t be looking at the sun at this point, remove the solar filter from your camera 30 to 40 seconds before the start and/or end of totality. Then use your camera’s display screen rather than the viewfinder to frame up your shot and start snapping. My dad tried his hand at astrophotography for the first time during the eclipse and walked away with this incredible shot, quite likely the best of the day:

What is the longest possible duration of totality?

In 2017, we enjoyed two minutes of totality. In 2024, it was three minutes. If we make it to Luxor in a few years, we have the potential to revel in six full minutes of totality. This begs the question, ‘what is the upper limit?’

According to a 2003 manuscript published by the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, the theoretical maximum of totality is believed to be 7 minutes 31 seconds. This would, of course, depend on the distance of both the sun and moon from earth, the time of year, time of day, and where on Earth you were standing.

NASA calculated a catalog of long total solar eclipses (exceeding 7 minutes of totality) over a 10,000-year period including ancient and modern eras – from 4000 BCE to 6000 CE (4000 years into the future). Their findings suggest that the longest totality took place on June 15, 743 BCE. If someone had been in a boat in the perfect spot of the Indian Ocean off the coast of present-day Somalia on that day 2,767 years ago, they would have experienced 7 minutes 28 seconds of totality.

As for what lies ahead? NASA predicts that an eclipse on July 16, 2186 will offer a whopping 7 minutes 29 seconds of totality to anyone perfectly positioned in the southern Atlantic off the coast of French Guyana and Brazil. I guess it’s time to buy a boat and take up sailing.

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