Chris Cooke

Much has already been said in the U.S. media about the total solar eclipse happening on Aug. 21 this year, and much more, I’m sure, will be said as we get closer to the day.

It is estimated that 12.2 million people will have the opportunity to see the event from their house or place of work, and 88 million people are within a day’s driving distance.

Add to this that the last time the eclipse was seen throughout the U.S. was in 1918, and coupled with today’s live media coverage, the event is called “The Great American Solar Eclipse.”

Already there are stories of predicted traffic gridlock, empty gas stations, forest fires, bad drivers on poor remote roads, extortionate hotel and car hire prices, aircraft contrails “spoiling” the sky and many more Hollywood-style predicted disaster stories.

What’s so special?

So what is the fuss about? Why are so many people traveling to the U.S. specifically to see something that, to be honest, is only a few minutes long? It’s been described as a “once in a lifetime event,” but in fact they occur approximately every 18 months. The reason is accessibility – North America is a lot easier to get to than Antarctica, for example.

So what is it that makes a total solar eclipse so special? It is a unique moment certainly reported in history (often inaccurately to fit in with the prophecies of doom at the time) but it does have huge scientific importance and I have to say, to see one is a spectacular and emotional event.

RELATED STORY: Cayman to see 55 percent of solar eclipse 

A total solar eclipse occurs when on specific occasions the new moon “gets in the way” of the sun. For a few brief moments, this alignment causes the sun to cast a shadow of the moon onto the Earth’s surface. As the Earth spins on its axis, that small area of shadow will then appear to travel across the surface of the Earth.

The eclipse starts in Oregon and travels across the U.S. to South Carolina in a narrow band approximately 70 miles wide. So the total solar eclipse is a moving target – and for the few minutes indicated is the only time it is safe to look at the sun directly without any kind of recommended filter or solar viewers.

Everyone else across the whole path of the eclipse will see only a partial eclipse.

In this region

Looking at the sun with unprotected eyes even when 90 percent covered is still dangerous to the eyes. The sun emits deadly radiation which is painless, yet staring at the sun for too long will cause permanent damage to the eyes.

The eclipse will be visible from Cayman, but as the map shows, it will not be total. Plans have been made to view the eclipse safely at the Dr. William Hrudey Observatory at the University College of the Cayman Islands, along with members of the Cayman Islands Astronomical Society.

It’s often said by people, “Oh, yes, I saw that eclipse,” but the truth is, they saw a partial eclipse that day and not the total solar eclipse. There is an important distinction. It’s a bit like going to a huge football stadium to see your favorite team (or music artist) and trying to see or experience it from the outside.

Heading to St. Louis, Missouri

This is why I will be joining members from the Cayman Islands Astronomical Society in St. Louis, Missouri, where we will meet up with fellow Caribbean astronomers from Trinidad, from the Caribbean Institute of Astronomy CARINA. The two societies have had close connections since 2012 when a rare astronomical event called the “Transit of Venus” was observed from a rooftop in Camana Bay. This will be our first meeting outside of the Caribbean.

This is my sixth solar eclipse. They are very addictive – the most common question after an eclipse has gone is simple enough: “When is the next one?”

The group has been invited to a solar eclipse viewing event in Festus, Missouri, by the St. Louis Astronomical Society. Festus is even closer to the middle line of the total eclipse – where it is predicted we will see the eclipse for a total of 2 minutes and 37 seconds.

So what will we actually see on the day to justify that long journey? Simply said, they are literally like nothing on Earth. We are all used to the normal pace of everyday life – the motion of the sun and moon across the sky and nature’s pace and behavior fits around this in well defined patterns. Not so at a solar eclipse. Behind it all is one strange coincidence or act of God – depending on your belief. Just why does the moon (comparatively close to the Earth at only 240,000 miles away) have the same angular diameter as the sun, which is more than 90 million miles distant? It is a huge cosmic coincidence, and hard to understand.

Finally, let me try to explain what will happen. Imagine the day – the weather is good and the eclipse is approaching from the west. For some time now, the sun, seen through solar viewers, has an increasing black segment edging across the sun’s disk. It’s getting close, almost there. Suddenly, the sky darkens with each blink of the eye and trees cast strange crescent-shaped shadows on the ground. Wildlife for a few minutes get fooled by the false twilight; street lights come on and it gets colder. The eclipse brings with it its own micro climate.

In the final few seconds, the glasses can be removed to see the famous “Baileys Beads” effects caused by the last rays of the sun shining through the mountains on the lunar surface. And then, totality has arrived. It is dark. At some eclipses, it is so dark, stars appear. If you are lucky, small colored flames can be seen coming from the sun, which is now completely covered by the moon, like an enormous black punch hole, and surrounding this image is a golden halo of shimmering white light called the corona.

This is now the total solar eclipse and is a spectacular moment.

And then it’s over. A brightening limb on one side of the moon suddenly erupts with more Baileys Beads and a spectacular diamond ring. It’s time to put those solar glasses back on and think about the next one. There are no total solar eclipses next year, but in 2020 you need to travel to South America to see one. The next total solar eclipse is back in the U.S. in 2024.

Chris Cooke is the former president of the Cayman Islands Astronomical Society. He lived in the Cayman Islands for 12 years, until 2016.