Mapping the 2017 total solar eclipse with Michael Zeiler

If you’ve been thinking about where to go to see the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States on August 21, 2017, you have more than likely come across the work of Michael Zeiler. Zeiler is the proprietor of the website Great American Eclipse.com. He has been an astronomy nut and eclipse chaser for many years, but just started making solar eclipse maps a few years ago.

Zeiler saw his first total solar eclipse from Baja, California in 1991 and was smitten.

Michael Zeiler

Michael Zeiler is the proprietor of the websites GreatAmericanEclipse.com and Eclipse-Maps.com. Photo: Eclipse-Maps.com

“It just was an amazing experience to see the eclipse hanging high in the sky with the blackest black you could see where the Moon is, and the shimmering corona, the most beautiful object in the sky that you never see in your life except for the few precious moments of totality,” Zeiler said.

“I was hooked from that point on,” he added.

Zeiler has used Fred Espenak’s eclipse maps ever since. In fact, back in 1991 he’d just purchased Espenak’s book Fifty Year Canon of Solar Eclipses, and noted the date of the 2017 eclipse 26 years in advance!

Making eclipse maps

Zeiler practically fell into the business of making eclipse maps back in 2009. He booked passage on a ship for a total solar eclipse in the Pacific Ocean in July of that year. The cruise advertised that it would sail to the point of greatest eclipse. He found that Espenak’s map didn’t have a key piece of information that he needed to know if that was true.

“For a land-based eclipse, it’s straightforward, because you see the road network, you see the cities and the roads and the other geographic features so that you can place yourself on the map,” Zeiler said. “But for an eclipse at sea, there’s no real geographic reference around you, so if you have a GPS receiver, what you really need is lines of latitude and longitude drawn on the map.”

gaeclipseZeiler, who works for the geographic information system software company Esri, decided to create it himself.

“I had the interest and the skill set so I made my own maps for this cruise,” he said. “I made a large map, laminated it, brought it on board the ship, taped it on one of the walls, and over a thousand eclipse chasers were on that cruise. That map was a smash hit.”

People encouraged him to make more, so he launched the website Eclipse-Maps.com late in 2009. The site became pretty popular. On May 20, 2012, the date of an annular solar eclipse visible from the American southwest, the site had a quarter million unique visitors and one million page views.

“I was stunned by that,” Zeiler said. “I didn’t expect that kind of response.”

It was at that moment that it struck him that the 2017 total solar eclipse was going to be huge. He snagged the URL GreatAmericanEclipse.com the very next day, launched the site, and has been working on it ever since.

“We constantly get emails or phone calls from people who are just jazzed about the eclipse and excited and wanting to learn more,” Zeiler said. “It’s a real thrill to participate in that.”

Vintage eclipse maps

Zeiler is a collector of vintage solar eclipse maps, and has images of some of them on the Eclipse-Maps website. His favorite era for eclipse mapping is the early 18th century, when the maps were not only gorgeous but amazingly accurate.

Casper eclipse map

Casper, Wyoming eclipse map courtesy GreatAmericanEclipse.com

“One of my key goals in making eclipse maps is to bring the artistry back into eclipse cartography, so I intentionally try and make the maps expressive, communicative, and just beautiful things to look at,” he said.

The man who has mapped the entirety of the 2017 total solar eclipse is headed to Casper, Wyoming as the starting point for his eclipse chase next summer. Zeiler said he considers three factors in making that decision: weather, mobility, and duration of the eclipse. He said the climate in Casper is good, and there are highways running east and west of town that pretty much hug the eclipse center line.

“All experienced eclipse chasers that I know are headed west for the weather, and we’re sacrificing ten or twenty seconds of maximum eclipse to get the great weather odds,” he said. The Astronomical League has chosen Casper for its annual conference in August for the same reasons. Catch our previous article and podcast about eclipse viewing in Casper.

Get eclipse stuff

GreatAmericanEclipse.com includes tons of information, maps, and a history of solar eclipses, plus a great selection of eclipse swag. You can buy your eclipse glasses there. Zeiler has also written a 44-page book, See the Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017, that aims to answer all the questions people might have about the eclipse. The book includes two pairs of eclipse glasses.

Zeiler does it all with excitement about sharing the eclipse with people.

“This will be the most fantastic astronomy event in decades for this country,” he said. “It’s going to create a new generation of people that appreciate the beauty and the majesty and the science of our universe, and many people will become newly formed eclipse chasers.”

Resources

Podcast of our conversation with Michael Zeiler:

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