On August 21, 2017 many on planet earth will have the rare opportunity to witness a Total Solar Eclipse. How rare, exactly? Well, it depends literally where on earth you are at a given point in time. If you reside primarily in the United States, then your last chance to have seen a Total Solar Eclipse was February 26, 1979. And, the next time you will be pulling out your solar eclipse glasses won't be until April 8, 2024!
But, don't be deceived. Eclipses happen somewhat regularly - about every 18 months somewhere in the world. Hard core eclipse chasers are already planning for the next one expected in South America on July 2, 2019. A solar eclipse is a lineup of the Sun, the Moon, and Earth. The Moon, directly between the Sun and Earth, casts a shadow on our planet. If you’re in the dark part of that shadow (the umbra), you’ll see a total eclipse. If you’re in the light part (the penumbra), you’ll see a partial eclipse.
The Mayans are known to be one of the most literate civilizations in the world. University of Colorado anthropology professor Payson Sheets argues they are the most literate of any new world civilization “by a long shot.” One striking example of this is the Mayan's accurate prediction of the total solar eclipse in the Mayan area - which includes modern-day Guatemala, Belize and parts of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador - on July 11, 1991. And, they were right! Unfortunately, Spanish Missionaries destroyed much of Mayan written record making it unknown how an eclipse was viewed in their society.
Here are a few ancient civilizations we do know about:
Vikings believe that Ragnarok (the apocalypse) comes about from two wolves, Skoll and Hati, wanting to eat the Sun and the Moon. Skoll goes after the Sun, while Hati chases the Moon. When either celestial body is caught, an eclipse takes place. On Earth, people must rescue the Sun or Moon by making as much noise as possible to scare away the wolves.
Egyptians are known for their worship of the sun along with their mathematical genius. So, it is surprising that little is known of their beliefs surrounding eclipses – there is virtually no mention of solar eclipses. Because of the prominent role the sun played in their society it is suggested an eclipse would have been terrifying. One theory is that Egyptians regarded it as an evil omen. However, my person opinion is that the Egyptians were so smart, and could so easily predict an eclipse that they weren't scared by it at all. I believe they simply viewed it for what it was. A math equation that aligned the earth, moon, and sun all at the same time!
In ancient Hindu mythology, the demon Rahu is beheaded by Vishnu for drinking the nectar of the gods. Rahu (or Kala Rau) had planned to achieve immortality by drinking the nectar and disguises himself as a woman to win a place at the god's banquet. When Vishnu realises the crime, he cuts of Rahu's head and it flies across the sky, swallowing the sun and causing an eclipse.
In 2008, researchers said a reference to a total eclipse was found in Homer's Odyssey, with the lines "The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world". The Ancient Greeks believed a total eclipse to be a bad omen. They thought it signalled that the gods were angry, and that it marked the beginning of disasters and destruction.
In ancient China, solar eclipses were also seen as bad omens. People thought eclipses took place when a dragon ate the Sun. To stop it, people would chant, beat drums and fire cannons to scare the dragon away. Predicting eclipses was the duty of astronomers and one of the earliest recordings of a total solar eclipse comes from 2,134 BC, when two astronomers failed to predict the eclipse – meaning people could not prepare. As a result, both had their heads chopped off.
Modern science along with the advent of new tools has taught us a lot more than our ancient predecessors could have ever known. However, credit is due where credit is deserved. The Mayans, Egyptians, and Chinese showed a gifted intellectual capacity in every sense of the word in their ability to compute astronomical events.
Here is what we known from modern science:
The clipse happens over a period of minutes, so most people will be looking up. However, spectators that look at the horizon during totality will witness the colors of sunrise and sunset around them in every direction. This 360-degree sunset effect is caused by the light from the sun in areas outside of the path of totality and only lasts as long as the face of the sun is covered by the moon.
As the moon causes day to turn to night, the darkness will reveal the stars in the sky as well as a few planets. But, don't waste time looking for them since many of these can be seen at night during different parts of the year. The alignment of the sun, and moon, and earth will also reveal the sun's corona, the area of hot gas the surrounds the sun. And, a few lucky spectators may even be fortunate enough to see a meteor streak across the sky during the brief period of darkness.
Not to cast a shadow on things, but likening a partial eclipse to a total eclipse is like comparing almost dying to dying. I know that 48 percent sounds like a lot. It isn’t. You won’t even notice your surroundings getting dark. And it doesn’t matter whether the partial eclipse above your location is 48, 58, or 98 percent. Only totality reveals the true celestial spectacle: the diamond ring, the Sun’s glorious corona, strange colors in our sky, and seeing stars in the daytime.
The reason the total phases of solar eclipses vary in time is because Earth is not always at the same distance from the Sun and the Moon is not always the same distance from Earth. The Earth-Sun distance varies by 3 percent and the Moon-Earth distance by 12 percent. The result is that the Moon’s apparent diameter can range from 7 percent larger to 10 percent smaller than the Sun.
After a great west-to-east path across Oregon, the center line takes roughly nine minutes to cross a wide swath of Idaho, entering the western part of the state just before 11:25 a.m. MDT and leaving just before 11:37 a.m. MDT. Next up is Wyoming, where the umbral center line dwells until just past 11:49 a.m. MDT. The center line hits the very northeastern part of Kansas at 1:04 p.m. CDT and enters Missouri a scant two minutes later. At 1:19, the shadow’s midpoint crosses the Mississippi River, which at that location is the state border with Illinois. The center line leaves Illinois at its Ohio River border with Kentucky just past 1:24 p.m. CDT. Totality for that state starts there two minutes earlier and lasts until nearly 1:29 p.m. CDT. The center line crosses the border into Tennessee around 1:26 p.m. CDT. Then, just past the midpoint of that state, the time zone changes to Eastern. The very northeastern tip of Georgia encounters the center line from just past 2:35 p.m. EDT until not quite 2:39 p.m. EDT. Finally, it’s South Carolina’s turn. The last of the states the center line crosses sees its duration from 2:36 p.m. EDT to 2:39 p.m. EDT. One further note: The extreme northeast part of Georgia does experience some totality, but at no point does the center line pass through that state.
That’s it. To experience that length, you’ll need to be slightly south of Carbondale, Illinois, in Giant City State Park. You might think about getting there early.
Not only will an eclipse cause the environment to appear different, but also feel different. "When sunlight fades at twilight, we always notice how things start to cool down. The same is true for the temporary dimming during a total solar eclipse," NASA said. Depending on factors such as the time of year, cloud cover and the length of totality, the air temperature can drop more than 20 degrees F. During a solar eclipse in 1834, the air temperature in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania reportedly dropped by 28 degrees F. Astronomers aren't expecting the temperature to drop quite that much, but people may still feel the temperature drop by around 10 degrees F.
One of the rare phenomenon to look for during the total solar eclipse is something called shadow bands or shadow snakes. "Shadow bands are thin, wavy lines of alternating light and dark that can be seen moving and undulating in parallel on plain-colored surfaces immediately before and after a total solar eclipse,"
NASA Interactive Path of Totality Map
Find Your Location on the Path of Totality on this interactive Google map
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