Last month’s total solar eclipse was the first one I had ever seen. Like many newly minted and experienced umbraphiles alike, I’m already thinking about the next total solar eclipse to cross the United States, which will happen on April 8, 2024. It seems like a long time off, but you don’t want to be like those folks who were frantically looking for eclipse glasses the day before the event!
As I ponder the last two years of planning for 2017, I realize that the advice received in the course of the enterprise was somewhat contradictory. In summary, when preparing for a total solar eclipse, one should plan carefully and well in advance, always have a plan B, and be ready to chuck it all and just wing it in the case of bad weather or other opportunities and circumstances.
Fred Espenak. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.
Our first tutorial in eclipse planning came from Mr. Eclipse himself, Fred Espenak, who spoke at the Seattle Astronomical Society banquet in January 2016. (Here’s our recap of that talk.) Espenak and his weather guru partner, Jay Anderson of Eclipsophile, scouted the entire path of totality for viewing and weather conditions. It was Espenak’s declaration of Madras, Oregon as having the best clear-sky prospects for eclipse day that drove thousands of people to central Oregon. My favorite remark from Espenak from that talk: “On eclipse day you don’t get climate, you get weather.” Oregon had the best odds, many of us rolled the dice on that and came out winners.
Have a plan B
For many eclipse chasers plan B amounts to watching the weather forecast in the days and weeks leading up to the eclipse and, if things look dicey, going somewhere else. Many choose their preferred viewing site based on the ability to get away. That’s one reason that Espenak viewed last month’s eclipse from Casper, Wyoming: the weather prospects there were good, and major highways running east and west along the path of totality meant a good chance to run to find a break in any clouds that might move in. The Astronomical League held its annual convention there, too.
Seattle Astronomy’s Greg Scheiderer with Stephen O’Meara at the Seattle Astronomical Society meeting Aug. 16, 2017.
The week before the eclipse Steven O’Meara, a columnist for Astronomy magazine and an avid eclipse chaser, gave a talk to the Seattle Astronomical Society. He recounted how, as a young child, his mother showed him little eclipses reflected through the holes in their home’s window blinds.
“Partial eclipses have been dear to me ever since I was a child,” O’Meara said. He noted that a thought struck him after a recent similar presentation.
“I realized how wonderful partial eclipses are and how much more fun I have at partial eclipses, because there’s no pressure,” O’Meara said. We think he actually thrives on the pressure though, and he told a number of entertaining stories about last-ditch efforts to beat the clouds and catch at least a glimpse of an elusive eclipse. Some of the more interesting ones involved Pop Tarts and essentially hijacking a boat in Indonesia when it appeared there would be no eclipse viewing on land. He may well be the king of plan B.
My own plan
Writing the Seattle Astronomy blog and producing our podcast was my research and planning for last month’s eclipse. I’ve done 27 posts (including this one) and did 15 podcasts about the eclipse, with the subject of many being the question of why one would choose Stapleton, Nebraska or Nashville for eclipse watching over the other places in the path of totality. I learned a lot about the activities each community had planned, and what else there was to do there once an eclipse was over. With all of that information, I ended up picking Salem, Oregon. I had three reasons: proximity, population, and weather.
Data by NASA/GSFC. Graph courtesy Jay Anderson, Eclipsophile.com
Proximity. I reasoned that, if I lived in the Salem area, I probably would not have gone anywhere else. I’d have gone to a local park, or sat in my own back yard, to watch the eclipse. One short move may have been to get a little closer to the center line. With Salem just a four-hour drive from Seattle, this seemed a sensible option.
Population. At some point in my deliberations, I decided that I preferred a more urban setting to a rural one. It seemed that accommodations, the ability to get around, and access to stuff like food and a porta-potty might be more likely in a setting with more infrastructure.
Weather. Yes, many people would and did laugh about this. Walk up to anyone and tell them that you plan to watch a solar eclipse in western Oregon, and about 80 percent of them will immediately laugh and declare that, “It will rain.”
Looking at Anderson’s chart above of weather along the path of totality revealed a different story, however. While, statistically, the weather in Salem on August 21 of any year isn’t as good as that in Madras, it’s still pretty close, and a far sight better than just about any place east of Missouri. Salem seemed a good bet. When the date arrived and climate turned into weather, it helped that we were in the middle of the driest, clearest summer anyone can remember.
As I asked people along the path if accommodations were available in their town or city, most of them noted that hotels don’t even book for more than a year in advance. In fact, I heard several funny stories about innkeepers befuddled by someone wanting to book a room five years ahead of time! Naturally, when I went online to look for reservations in Salem 13 months prior to the eclipse, everything was completely sold out. Some time later I stumbled across an available motel room in Lebanon, Oregon and snapped up the reservation. I got tickets to OMSI’s eclipse event at the fairgrounds in Salem, and I was ready to go.
Back in December I published a post and podcast interviewing Elaine Cuyler of Orbit Oregon, publisher of the kids’ book The Big Eclipse. Cuyler, a former marketing director for Eola Hills Winery near Salem, was putting together the Wine Country Eclipse festival at the Polk County Fairgrounds. She invited me to speak at the festival, complete with gratis lodging in a residence hall at nearby Western Oregon University in Monmouth. It seemed like a no-brainer, and I jumped at the chance. I cancelled my motel reservation and gladly stayed in the dorms at WOU (pronounced “woo”, according to the staff.)
So, after about 20 months of planning, I ended up doing something that was only finalized about two or three weeks ahead of the eclipse. As noted in my post about eclipse weekend, it couldn’t have worked out better.
Total solar eclipse, 2024
Map courtesy Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com
If this year’s was “The Great American Eclipse,” then some are already dubbing the 2024 event “The Great North American Eclipse.” As you can see from the map at left, this one will first hit land in Mexico, swoop up through Texas, cross the path of the 2017 eclipse in Carbondale, Illinois, and zip northeast until it crosses Maine and the maritime provinces of Canada. Thanks to Micheal Zeiler of GreatAmericanEclipse.com for the map; Zeiler was one of our interview subjects, too! Check out our post and podcast.
So, where will you be in April 2024? I’ve been looking at Jay Anderson’s weather maps already, and it seems the best weather prospects will be in Mexico, but I’m leaning toward Texas right now. I’d try to make hotel reservations, but nobody books more than a year in advance. And some cool opportunity might turn up at the last minute.