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Mr. Eclipse says west may be best for 2017 total solar eclipse

Fred Espenak has earned the moniker “Mr. Eclipse” though almost 46 years of observing, predicting, and chronicling solar and lunar eclipses. Espenak spoke about The Great American Total Solar Eclipse, which will cross the United States in August 2017, during his keynote talk Saturday, Jan. 30 at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society.

Fred Espenak

Fred Espenak, known as “Mr. Eclipse,” gave tips during a talk at the annual banquet of the Seattle Astronomical Society for viewing the August 2017 total solar eclipse. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Espenak retired in 2009 after a long career as the head eclipse guy at NASA, where he maintained the agency’s eclipse information pages. His photography of eclipses has appeared in numerous magazines, and he’s often tapped by the news media to provide expert commentary about eclipses. He’s had a hand in several books about the topic.

Espenak was bitten by the eclipse bug when he was in high school. He had just gotten his driver’s license and went on a 600-mile road trip to watch and photograph a total solar eclipse from Windsor, North Carolina in March 1970.

“I was overwhelmed by the experience,” Espenak said. “It was like nothing I had read in the books. The spectacle of totality just cannot easily be conveyed through books, through writing, through photographs, through video.”

The total solar eclipse that will happen on August 21, 2017 will be the first one visible from the continental United States since 1979. We’re lucky to live in the Northwest because some of the best odds for clear weather for the event are close by. That’s not the sort of sentence we write often on Seattle Astronomy.

Madras in August

“In Madras, Oregon the prospects there are 35 percent [cloudiness] from satellite data and 24 percent probability of clouds from the nearest airport,” Espenak said. “Madras is favored with probably the best long-term climate along the entire eclipse path, and that’s why a lot of people are heading in that area.”

Madras is about 45 miles north of Bend in central Oregon.

Espenak and eclipsing partner Jay Anderson have done some exhaustive analysis of the 2,500-mile path the total eclipse will take across twelve states from Lincoln City, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Anderson crunched weather data from satellite photos and airport reports and found that, in general, our chances are better out west. The midwest is prone to thunderstorms in the summer and the east coast can get clouds because of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. But Espenak cautions about relying too heavily on history.

Where to see the eclipse

“I can’t tell you the magic place where the best weather is going to be,” he said. “All of these statistics that Jay has concocted and derived are based on climate and 20-year studies.”

“On eclipse day you don’t get climate, you get weather,” Espenak added. While he has no magic spot, Espenak plans to start his personal pursuit of the 2017 eclipse in Casper, Wyoming, which is near the center of the eclipse path and has pretty good weather prospects.

“Casper is the location where the Astronomical League will hold its 2017 annual conference, and of course that’s going to bring a lot of eclipse chasers there,” Espenak explained. “That’s also what will bring me there, the conference. But I’m not saying I’m necessarily going to watch the eclipse from Casper, because it depends on what the two-day weather forecast is before eclipse day. If the weather looks good, I’ll stay there. If not, I’m prepared to run.”

That is Espenak’s most important piece of advice. As with real estate, when it comes to total solar eclipses, location is everything.

“Mobility, mobility, mobility is the key to seeing the eclipse, especially in this day and age with the wonderful weather forecasts you can get 24 to 48 hours in advance,” he said. “The biggest thing to keep in mind is if some large frontal system is moving across the United States, because that’s going to be the exception to the rule that throws these weather statistics out the window. That’s what’s going to change everything. If there’s a big front coming through, you want to look at the forecasts and make sure that you are on the dry side and clear side of that front at your location on eclipse day.”

That might mean you have to drive hundreds of miles to get a view of the Sun on eclipse day. Espenak said just do it if you have to.

“It’s worth it to see the total eclipse,” he said. “It’s the most spectacular thing you will probably ever see with the naked eye.”

Don’t miss this eclipse

After a long drought, it’s interesting to note that another total solar eclipse will be visible from the United States in 2024. But Espenak cautioned that this is no reason to bail on next year’s event because of a cloud or two.

“You really need to take every opportunity, becuase you never know what hand you’re going to be dealt in terms of weather,” he said, noting that, even with all of the data available and his experience chasing eclipses, about a quarter to a third of the time the weather leads to disappointment.

“It’s just a fact of the game,” he said.

More resources

Books by Fred Espenak

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Partial solar eclipse seen in Seattle

The partial solar eclipse of October 23, 2014 was a highly successful skywatching event by Seattle standards. Much of the first half of the eclipse was visible as it dodged clouds around the city. I viewed it from the sidewalk in front of Seattle Astronomy world headquarters in West Seattle.

Few observers held out much hope for seeing the eclipse. The weather forecast had been for rain and clouds for much of the Northwest. In the days leading up to the eclipse area astronomy message boards carried some talk of road trips to sites with better potential for clear skies, such as Yakima or other parts of Eastern Washington, though one seasoned observer wrote, “I have no confidence in finding anywhere drivable that reliably will have clear skies.” Clearly, a man who has been through this before.

Sure enough, we awoke on the morning of the eclipse to heavy rain and solid, dark, gray cloud cover. There seemed scant likelihood we would be seeing the eclipse. But by mid-morning the rain let up, and at about 11:37 a.m. I sent out this tweet and photo:

The blue sky held for the most part, and though the exact moment that the eclipse began was obscured by a cloud, the sun was out in full glory not long into it.

Eclipse start from Seattle Astronomy HQ.

Just minutes into the partial solar eclipse of Oct. 23, 2014. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

It didn’t last long. Not more than 15 minutes later a robust thunderstorm, including lots of hail, blew through the area, obscured the Sun from view and drove us for cover. The storm didn’t last long, but the cloud cover remained for a while. Perhaps 20 minutes to half an hour later, we spotted a patch of blue sky to the west and urged the Sun to steer into it. It did! For the next hour or so the eclipsing Sun played hide and seek with us, dodging under cloud cover and then peeking back out again.

Maximum eclipse happened right about 3 p.m., and about 15 minutes after that one of the neighbor kids who had come over for a look through the Seattle Astronomy telescope and eclipse shades spotted a flash of lightening. A rumbling thunderclap followed a few seconds later, and within a minute or two it was raining and hailing hard. Alas, we’d seen the last of the eclipse for the day. Another blue patch finally arrived right around 5 p.m., old Sol popped into view, but the disk of the new Moon had passed by and the eclipse was over.

The eclipse was especially interesting because of the giant sunspot aimed right at us. You can see it in the photos, which, I admit, aren’t that great. They were made with a little point-and-shoot camera stuck right up to the telescope eyepiece. I don’t claim any real talent for astrophotography, but like to grab a few snapshots, just to show that I was there.

Solar Eclipse

The partial solar eclipse of October 23, 2014, right around the time of maximum coverage as seen from Seattle. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The eclipse put me in mind of the 2012 Venus transit, when bad weather and a desire to see what was a once-in-a-lifetime event convinced me to drive as far as Corning, California for a chance to see the Sun. (Read the accounts of the trip down and the transit day elsewhere on this site.) This time I decided to stay home, and it paid off. While I didn’t see the whole eclipse, I saw enough to enjoy and appreciate this awesome spectacle, and was able to share it with some neighbors too!

I can’t help but laugh at myself because I still audibly gasp most times at the start of these sorts of events. Seeing the solar eclipse or the Venus transit begin just when the scientists said it would just amazes me, and the spectacle itself is so awesome. Even just spotting Saturn again after it has been out of view, or up too early in the morning, tickles my astronomical fancy. The universe is such an amazing place.

I’m happy that Seattle weather gave us a break and let us have a good view of a great celestial show.

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October is eclipse month

The new issues of Astronomy and Sky & Telescope magazines arrived in the mail over the last couple of days with reminders that a couple of cool events should be visible from Seattle in October. There will be a total eclipse of the Moon in the early morning hours on October 8, and a partial eclipse of the Sun in the afternoon on October 23.

The lunar eclipse October 8 will begin in Seattle at 1:15 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time with the onset of the faint penumbral eclipse. The real show starts about an hour later when the Moon enters Earth’s umbral shadow. The eclipse will reach totality at 3:25 a.m. and the Moon will remain in complete shadow for just under an hour. The umbral eclipse will be over at about 5:35 a.m.

As an added attraction during the eclipse, the planet Uranus will be close by the shadowy Moon, passing about one degree south of it during the event. You will need binoculars or a telescope to spot Uranus, which is at the best point for observing it this year. It will reach opposition to the Sun October 7, and thus is up all evening and is at its closest to Earth.

Animation showing the moon’s penumbral shadow sweeping from west to east across the Earth’s surface on October 23, 2014.

Animation showing the moon’s penumbral shadow sweeping from west to east across the Earth’s surface on October 23, 2014.

The partial solar eclipse October 23 happens at a much better hour for those of us in the northwest. In Seattle the eclipse begins at 1:35 p.m., will reach its maximum at 3 p.m., and be over at 4:20 p.m. All times are Pacific Daylight Time.

It is not all that unusual to see a partial solar eclipse, but this should be a particularly good one, as about 64 percent of the Sun’s disk will be covered by the Moon from our vantage point.

We’re lucky to be in Seattle, as the eclipse will cover more of the Sun the further north you go. The maximum for this eclipse is some 81 percent up in northern Canada. On the other hand, we’re unlucky to be in Seattle, as we average only five clear days during October, when the Sun’s rays reach us during only about 37 percent of daylight hours. So we’re rolling the dice a bit when it comes to actually having breaks in the clouds so that we can see the eclipse. Ever the optimists, we note that October is not our worst weather month, and we have the dates for both eclipses marked on our calendar.

Please remember never to look at the Sun without proper eye protection. The eclipse glasses at right are a good a low-cost choice. They and a number of other options are available from the software and accessories section of our Seattle Astronomy Store. If you’re using a telescope or binoculars, make sure they’re fitted with solar filters; looking at the Sun through an unfiltered magnifier can cause serious eye damage in a big hurry. If you don’t have the right equipment, it’s a good bet to try to find out if an astronomy club near you plans a viewing event. As of this writing, we know that the Tacoma Astronomical Society plans a free public solar eclipse watch at Pierce College and the Pierce College Science Dome. We know of no others at the moment, but imagine that plans will be made in the coming weeks.

Seattle Astronomy will probably be out somewhere about town with our telescope and some solar shades if the weather looks favorable on eclipse day. We’ll keep you posted about our plans.

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