Two days ago I watched a total solar eclipse for the first time in my life. This was, in fact, the first total solar eclipse visible in any part of the lower 48 states since before I was born. The last total solar eclipse visible in the lower 48 was on February 26, 1979, and it was only visible in parts of the Northwest. This time, the path of the total eclipse cut right through the heart of the United States, with the point of greatest eclipse very close to Hopkinsville, Kentucky—where I viewed the event. A photo of the total eclipse taken from Hopkinsville is featured at the top of this post (credit: NASA).
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and obscures the sun during the daytime. While partial solar eclipses are a relatively common occurrence, a total eclipse is a rare event for any one place on the earth. While a lunar eclipse is visible to an entire half of the earth, a total solar eclipse is visible only along a narrow path. Solar eclipses are also short-lived events; the maximum duration of the totality portion of this year’s eclipse in any one spot was 2 minutes, 41.6 seconds, although totality—when the moon completely covers the sun—can last as long as seven and a half minutes during an eclipse. The reason why total solar eclipses happen has to do with God’s design in creation: the moon is 400 times smaller in diameter than the sun, but the sun is 400 times more distant from the earth than the moon, which means that the two disks occupy the same visual space in our sky. When the moon passes between the earth and the sun, it can completely cover the sun’s disk and completely block the sun’s light. Although the moon orbits the earth every 28-29 days, and it always casts a shadow, only rarely does this shadow (umbra) pass over the earth’s surface, since the moon’s orbit is tilted about 5 degrees off the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun. If the moon’s plane of orbit were exactly the same as the earth’s, the moon would block out the sun every month (every new moon), with totality lasting about 7 minutes in the tropics, while other regions would experience a partial eclipse. Also, a lunar eclipse would be seen every full moon. If the moon’s orbital plane were only slightly different from the earth’s, a total solar eclipse would still be seen every new moon, but at higher latitudes. At 5 degrees of difference in the plane of orbit, the earth still experiences total solar eclipses, but only about every 18 months.
Seeing a total solar eclipse is a far different experience than seeing a partial eclipse. A partial eclipse may just seem like an overcast day, perhaps a bit eerie, with the sun not shining as brightly. In a total eclipse, however, twilight suddenly descends during the middle of the day. Bright stars and planets become visible, and birds stop chirping. Animals bed down, thinking it is night. And one can look directly at the sun and see the solar corona (the sun’s atmosphere) streaming out from behind the moon’s black disk.
Hotels within the total eclipse path were fully booked from coast to coast, usually far in advance and at exorbitant prices. If I had to do it over again, I would have booked a hotel room at least a year in advance, or as early as possible. As it was, I booked a hotel two months before the eclipse. I couldn’t find any Midwest hotels in the actual eclipse zone that had rooms available, other than a couple of high-end hotels in Nashville. The closest hotel I could find in Illinois was a La Quinta Inn in Effingham (about 2 hours north of the eclipse) for $259/night, and the drive from back to Effingham from the eclipse zone on the evening of August 21 was horrendous. Even Amtrak did not have round-trip tickets left for the train from Effingham to Carbondale on August 21, although as it turns out Carbondale was partly cloudy. Fortunately, there were hotel rooms available in Evansville, Indiana at their regular rate. Evansville is only 80 miles north of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where I determined to view the eclipse. All the reservations were prepaid and non-refundable—otherwise many people would cancel their reservations if the weather forecast called for clouds or storms. I booked a two-night hotel stay. If I did it again, I would book a longer stay in order to avoid traffic problems, and I would stay in the town where I plan to view the eclipse.
I began checking the weather forecast for Hopkinsville as soon as it was available, fourteen days in advance. The forecast changed frequently, from thunderstorms to partly cloudy to sunny. The last two days, the forecast was “partly cloudy.” As it turned out, the sky was clear throughout the eclipse, and we had a great view of the sun. Many other locations in the Midwest had clouds. I believe Hopkinsville was the best place in the world to watch this eclipse; certainly it was the place where totality was seen the longest.
You don’t just need a hotel room to view the eclipse—unless you are camping at the spot where you plan to watch, you also need to reserve space at a viewing site, and you need to make these reservations far in advance. Usually you need to bring your own chairs, blankets, umbrellas/canopies, food, eclipse glasses, and a pinhole projector (a colander can be used to create a similar effect against a white background) or a special projecting telescope. Space on a farm within the exact point of greatest eclipse (Orchardale Farm in Cerulean, KY) was sold out when I checked for tickets. We viewed the eclipse at Hopkinsville Community College, which was only a couple of blocks from the exact center of the eclipse path, and very close to the point of greatest eclipse. It turned out to be the perfect spot. We chose to sit just inside the large glass entryway of a building on campus in order to enjoy the air conditioning on a very hot day. Every few minutes during the eclipse we would walk outside to take another look at the sun and shadows, before staying outside for about ten minutes immediately before, during, and after totality. The college also had indoor and outdoor food service, plenty of indoor restrooms, plenty of wide open outdoor spaces, a medical tent, and a series of lectures and events before, during, and after the eclipse.
I set a watch to the exact time, and wrote down the exact start and end times for the eclipse, and the exact start and end times for the total eclipse, from our exact location at the community college. As the eclipse progressed toward totality for an hour and a half, one of the things we noticed was that shadows became very crisp and well-defined. The air turned noticeably cooler (actually, less hot) as the sun’s light decreased. A few minutes before totality, all of us put on our eclipse glasses and watched the sun disappear. The “diamond ring” just before totality was impressive; we did not notice “Bailey’s beads,” however. The eclipse glasses are so dark that nothing but the sun can be seen through them; thus, as soon as totality began we could see nothing at all, and we took off our glasses. People were cheering all around us, especially at the beginning and end of totality. Some people lit off fireworks. Children loved it. No one exhibited adverse reactions or psychological shock. The solar corona was a unique and impressive sight, well worth the trip. I kept checking my watch, and was surprised at how slowly the 2 minutes, 40 seconds of totality passed. About ten seconds before totality was over, we put our eclipse glasses back on and watched the sun reappear, this time with the “diamond ring” and crescent on the opposite side of the moon. The second half of the eclipse was like the first half in reverse, and thus not as exciting. You can watch NASA’s live coverage of the total solar eclipse from Hopkinsville, starting at 2:52:23 on this video.
Some things that impressed me about the eclipse:
- The brightness of the sun—I found it difficult to look at the sun through eclipse glasses until most of the sun was covered. I was also impressed by the fact that as soon as the first sliver of the sun reappeared, it immediately became much lighter around us.
- The length of totality—2 minutes, 40 seconds seemed like a long time, much longer than I needed to take in the sight of the corona, the 360 degree sunset, and the twilight.
- It was not as dark during the total eclipse as I thought it would be—it was like dusk, but not night.
- We had the ideal situation for viewing the eclipse, on a campus with open buildings, food, bathrooms, and plenty of space. I felt sorry for all the people who were camped out across the street in the August heat.
Our drive to Evansville on the day before the eclipse was uneventful, with no traffic problems. The next day we left at 4 am and easily beat the traffic going to Hopkinsville. We left the college at 3 pm, soon after the eclipse ended. The traffic was the worst I have ever seen—imagine several big football games all letting out at once. It took us 6 hours to drive the 80 miles from Hopkinsville to our hotel in Evansville. But the next day, driving north from Evansville back to Michigan, there were no traffic problems at all.
The next solar eclipse visible in the mainland U.S. will occur on Monday, April 8, 2024, although unfortunately that is a time of year when clouds are likely and storms are frequent. The point of greatest eclipse on that day will be in Durango, Mexico, where totality will last nearly four and a half minutes. The eclipse path through the U.S. will include Dallas, Little Rock, and Cleveland. For those who don’t want to wait that long, there will be two total solar eclipses in the next three years which will be visible from southern South America—one on July 2, 2019 and one on December 14, 2020. If you want to see those eclipses, start booking your travel arrangements as soon as possible. Also, check one of the interactive maps on this site for details on exactly when and for how long the eclipse will last at your precise location. Besides visiting Chile or Argentina, these eclipses can also be viewed from eclipse cruises or an eclipse flight. A cruise ship has the advantage of being able to adjust its course based on the cloud cover forecast. A plane has the double advantage of going over cloud cover and using the speed of the plane to extend the length of totality. Some people are known as “eclipse travelers,” and go to see every total solar eclipse. For me, personally, now that I have seen a total solar eclipse, I don’t feel like I have to see another one; but perhaps that feeling will change in a few years.
Viewing a total solar eclipse was a unique and possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience. One of the reasons I went was to try to understand why these events were such a big deal to people in ancient times. To see the sun suddenly go dark in the middle of the day could certainly be a frightening experience, as if the world were coming to an end. Also, the appearance of the sun’s corona is a strange and other-worldly sight. This would especially be a big deal to peoples who worshiped the sun, as nearly all pagan cultures did. A total solar eclipse was usually viewed as a bad omen. Both solar and lunar eclipses are frequently mentioned in ancient literature, outside of the Bible. (For biblical studies, eclipses are helpful as chronological markers when they are mentioned in extrabiblical literature—see this article by my friend Roger Young.) Some people may have feared that the world was coming to an end when the sun went dark. Even today, some people consider the viewing of a total solar eclipse to be psychologically shocking, although it did not have any adverse psychological effects on me or on the people around me. Unlike ancient man, we knew the eclipse was coming and we understood why. But there is a sense in which a total solar eclipse is a preview-in-miniature of the end of the world. If the sun dies, then the earth and everything in it will also die, and quickly. Indeed, the Bible tells us that just before Jesus Christ returns to the earth, the sun will be blackened as part of a general disintegration of the universe, causing great panic among men (Matt 24:29; Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25-27; Acts 2:20; Rev 6:12; cf. Isa 24:23; Amos 8:9). In that day, the sun will not reappear after it is darkened, and each of us will have to give an account of ourselves to our Creator.