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Total Solar Eclipses Aren't Just About What You See

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The U.S. is preparing to experience this summer’s blockbuster show-the first coast to coast total solar eclipse in 99 years. 

While solar eclipses aren’t uncommon, this one is significant. Not only is it a total solar eclipse, meaning the moon will completely blot out the sun, it will also be visible in portions of 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina. 

It’s been 38 years since a total eclipse was visible from the continental United States - and even then it was visible only in the northwestern U.S. & Canada.  Many eclipses are only visible from remote parts of the globe.

Fred Espenak is known as the ultimate eclipse chaser. He’s seen 27 total eclipses-and from every continent, including Antarctica.  During a lecture at Hopkinsville Community College in June, he talked about seeing his first total eclipse in 1970 as a young astronomer.

“I thought I was prepared, but when the moon’s shadow came above the horizon, swept over me and I was plunged into that twilight, and it changed my life," Espenak stated.  "The beauty of it was overwhelming, and when it was over, I knew this could not be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had to see it again.”

The now-retired NASA astrophysicist says the experience is hard to put into words, but offers a pale rendition.

“During the eclipse, the sky is about as dark as it gets about a half-hour after sunset, but you’re plunged into that twilight in 30 seconds, and your eyes haven’t quite adjusted to it, so it seems darker than it actually is," explained Espenak.  "Your inner core says 'This is not right', and you get a very visceral reaction to this event.  The hair on the back of your neck stands up, you get goosebumps. It’s surprising that you get these physiological reactions, and you can easily understand how people thousands of years ago saw one of these eclipses and thought it was the end of the world.”

Espenak says he’s witnessed spectators weeping and on their knees praying during total eclipses. Many are overcome with emotion.

Western Kentucky University Astronomy Professor Richard Gelderman saw his first total solar eclipse in Indonesia last year as part of a NASA research project. 

“When I went to Indonesia, it was for science reasons, but coming back, what I recognized was, it was a human experience," Gelderman recalled.  "There’s nothing that prepares you as a human being for having full-blown mid-day sun disappear into twilight in just a matter of a minute of two.”

Dr. Gelderman recalls being on the equator and sweating heavily just minutes before the eclipse, then the temperature dropped about 15 degrees. 

The experience is not just about what you see, but how you feel and what you hear, or actually, don't hear.

“In the equator in Indonesia, there had been bugs for days and days, just the constant sound of bugs," commented Gelderman.  "All of a sudden, all the insects freaked out and shut up, and for the first time, there was silence.”

Stationed in a rural area of Indonesia, Professor Gelderman watched cows headed into barns and chickens into their coops as they do at night.  Humans and animals have a variety of reactions based on our internal clocks.

In the U.S. on Monday, the path of totality, meaning total darkness, begins in the Pacific Ocean, crosses the U.S., and ends in the Atlantic Ocean.  It will take three to three-and-a-half hours for the moon to go from one end of the country to the other.  All of North America will get a partial eclipse, but only a narrow path will get totality.

“The moon’s shadow across that track is moving at an average speed of about 1,700 miles per hour, so it crosses the country in only 90 minutes," explained Espenak.

The last total eclipse in Kentucky was in 1869.  The next one is not far away in April 2024, but Espenak says it will only be seen in the extreme western part of the state, and the weather prospects aren’t as favorable that time of year.

For most, the August 21 eclipse it will be a once-in-a-lifetime show, and it’s a bargain.  The Monday matinee requires no tickets, just special viewing glasses, and maybe some good vibes for clear skies.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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