News and Updates

Preparing for Totality

The Moon obscures the Sun as seen during the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse as seen from Madisonville, Tennessee. Mercury can be seen near the left edge of the photo.
Credit: David Diebold

This article has been co-authored by David Diebold, Nick Boone and Nik Alexander.

100% totality. That’s where you want to be. 99% is not and will never be enough. 

If you want to experience the true beauty and awe of the upcoming total solar eclipse, you have to be within the path of totality. There is no compromise. Totality is a unique experience, it is a truly cosmic event where the concept of daytime slips away from you, plunging the world into a momentary 360 degree twilight. It’s a night and day contrast, a captivating reminder of the majesty of the Solar System. 

The last solar eclipse to cross the continental United States occurred 7 years ago on August 21st, 2017. The next one to occur within the United States will be on August 22nd-23rd, 2044 with totality visible only from northern Montana as it is primarily crossing Canada and the Arctic Circle. The one immediately after it on August 12th, 2045 will be the next to cross the entire country, with the path of totality stretching from Northern California to the Space Coast in Florida.

A total solar eclipse is not a particularly rare event, however they are not necessarily easy events to just go and see as the paths of totality are never one in the same. Many cross the oceans, only barely touching land, or never at all. Some cross the wooded tundra wilderness of Canada and Russia with few people there to see it happen. Each one is unique with no two eclipses alike, and the chance to see one can be a once in a lifetime event for some. If you have the chance to see it, you owe it to yourself to do so.

A total solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, casting a shadow that races across the surface of the Earth at around 1,000 mph. As seen from Earth, the Sun becomes increasingly obscured as time goes on until it’s blocked out completely – the event known as totality. 

The “Diamond Ring” as seen during the 2017 solar eclipse.
Credit: David Diebold

The eclipse on April 8th, 2024 will last about 2 hours and 30 minutes. The first event is C1 (Contact 1), when the Moon starts to cover the Sun. This is also known as the partial phase. The first partial phase of this eclipse will be just over an hour long. In the final seconds leading up to C2, the last visible portion of the Sun creates what is known as the “Diamond Ring” effect. Then the real show begins – Totality.

During Totality, the Sun is completely hidden behind the Moon which reveals the Sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona. This is the only time you can safely look at the Sun with the naked eye. With the Sun blocked out, the sky darkens dramatically and the brightest stars and planets become visible. During totality on April 8th, 2024, there’s also the possibility of seeing comet 12P/Pons-Brooks in the sky near Jupiter. Totality doesn’t last long, clocking in at roughly 4 minutes on April 8th. At the end of totality, we reach C3. At this point, all of the previously mentioned events will repeat in reverse. A second diamond ring will appear and lead into the second partial phase until C4, when the eclipse has ended.

A good weather forecast is the biggest factor to consider when choosing your location. You want clear skies with as little cloud cover as possible. Cloud cover forecasts are unreliable up until a few days before, so keep an eye on that leading up to eclipse day. The April 8th eclipse will happen during wildfire season in North America, so keep an eye on smoke forecasts. Keep in mind that forecasts are predictions and not guarantees. 

To experience the major phenomena associated with a total solar eclipse, you must be within the path of totality. 99.9% isn’t enough; totality is 100% or it’s not totality at all. Using an eclipse map such as this, you can see where the path of totality spans and choose a spot inside it. If you can’t travel, you can also see how much of a partial solar eclipse your area will see.

Once you’re in an area inside the path of totality with a good weather forecast, you need to find a viewing spot! Pick a spot with a wide, unobstructed view of the sky so that the Sun doesn’t get blocked by something while you’re watching. You’ll likely be out in the Sun all day, so wear sunscreen! Choose a location with nearby shade, or bring your own canopy/sunshade if possible. Several places across the country will host eclipse viewing events, and some will be hosted by or affiliated with NASA. You can find precise times for the Eclipse at your chosen location via sites such as Time and Date.

Areas along the path of totality are expecting a very large influx of people visiting to view the eclipse. Traffic will likely be an issue everywhere, especially along major roadways. Leave early and drive carefully. Many smaller towns and communities are expected to run out of groceries and gasoline, and restaurants are expecting to run out of food as well. Bring your own water and food, and be sure to have a full tank of gas before eclipse day.

A map of the path of totality. Click the image to view full res downloads provided by NASA.
Credit: NASA

Never look directly at the Sun without proper eye protection. Only use ISO Certified eclipse glasses to avoid permanent eye damage. The only time you can ever look directly at the Sun without eye protection is during totality. You can also view the eclipse safely using a couple of “indirect” methods, such as these.

Be sure to experience every aspect of totality! Try not to stare at the solar corona for the entire thing, as tempting as that sounds. Take a look around! Notice how the sky darkens and bright stars and planets are suddenly visible. Take in the 360 degree Sunset colors around you. Look for shadow bands and strange projections through tree leaves. Depending on where you’re at, listen to the crowd as they cheer, or listen out for crickets and other nocturnal sounds. The temperature will also change as the Moon obscures more and more of the solar disc; during totality the temperatures likely will be at their lowest.

Pictured here is a basic solar imaging setup, including a DSLR, telephoto lens, DIY solar filter, intervalometer and tripod.
Credit: Nick Boone

There are several ways to capture photos and video of the eclipse. Using your cellphone is one of the easiest options. If you put a solar filter in front of the lens, you can easily take photos of the partial phases. Possibly the easiest thing to do is to record a video! Put your phone on a tripod and hit record a few minutes before totality, and let it record the entire thing. Many eclipse chasers say that video is one of the best things to get during an eclipse, because you also record the audio from the moment!

A partial eclipse as shot on an iPhone 14 Pro Max through eclipse glasses during October 2023.
Credit: David Diebold

Another common way to capture the eclipse is with a point and shoot, mirrorless, or DSLR camera. Preferably, you want a camera with manual control. You’ll also want a remote shutter cable to avoid camera shake. You can take close-up telephoto shots, or wide angle landscape shots. The possibilities are endless!

No matter what you do, you should always prioritize experiencing totality with your own eyes over any attempt at capturing photos or video. If something goes wrong  with your gear, simply forget it. Don’t spend all of totality looking at your camera! 

For many, eclipses are a once in a lifetime experience. The great, cosmic sight of our home star being obscured by the sun is one that will be remembered for years to come. Part of the job of being a witness is to relay that information, to truly showcase its true power and beauty. Outreach, in this case, is essential. There are two steps to outreach here, the first is coupling with major scientific agencies like NASA, NOAA, the National Science Foundation and more to share links and photographs. The second falls on the one who experienced it, to showcase what you witnessed and what you learned, helping to instill that spark in someone who hasn’t had the chance to see one in person yet. Images are the lifeblood of events like this – a quintessential tool to help spread the word and get people excited about the age-old tradition of looking up to the cosmos in wonder. 

A total solar eclipse is a rare, fantastic event that relatively few people get to experience in their lives. To fully appreciate it, you must be within the path of totality on April 8th. Preparing for this event is essential, from choosing your location ahead of time, making sure you can safely view it, and ensuring you have everything you need to enjoy the moment. Capturing photos or video is tempting, but make sure you take the time to enjoy the eclipse firsthand; There will be plenty of professionals covering it. Each eclipse is unique and spectacular, and this is the last total solar eclipse over the United States for the next 20 years. If you have the means to travel for it, you owe it to yourself to do so.

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