Logistics of Viewing the Upcoming Solar Eclipse

By Terry Dunn

Are you planning to view the solar eclipse next Monday? And if so, are you prepared?

Are you planning to view the solar eclipse next Monday (8/21/17)? No, I mean are you really planning how you'll watch this rare celestial event? Finding the appropriate solar-filter glasses is just one piece of the puzzle, and certainly a very important one. You should also prepare yourself to be part of an astronomically huge migration of people as millions of sky watchers gravitate to the best viewing spots across the US.

What's Happening

A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon's path takes it between the Earth and the Sun. Monday's eclipse is unique because it is a total solar eclipse. Those in the right spot will experience "totality", where the Moon completely obscures the Sun, leaving only its corona fringe visible. The Moon's shadow will cast an eerie temporary twilight in the middle of the day. It's a sort of otherworldly phenomenon that eclipse experts say is worth whatever effort it takes to experience.

True totality will only happen for people who are at the correct latitude to be aligned with the Sun and Moon…i.e. folks inside the Moon's shadow. Viewers at off-axis latitudes will have to settle for a less-spectacular partial eclipse, as some part of the Sun will always remain visible for them.

Over a period of about 1.5 hours, the Moon's shadow will trace a diagonal path approximately 70 miles wide from Oregon to South Carolina. This "Path of Totality" through the US heartland is why many are calling Monday's event "The Great American Eclipse". This presents an opportunity for viewing a total eclipse to the 12 million+ Americans who live within the path of totality as well as the additional millions who plan to travel there.

The Place to Be

Mike Zeiler is an eclipse junkie. He belongs to a worldwide group of enthusiasts who are willing to travel anywhere on Earth to see an eclipse. The stamps in Zeiler's passport suggest that no location is too remote when a total solar eclipse is involved. He is even planning a future eclipse viewing trip in Antarctica.

Monday's total solar eclipse will travel across the US, making it viewable by millions of people. (image courtesy of www.greatamericaneclipse.com)

Zeiler's website, GreatAmericanEclipse.com, is a complete resource containing everything you ever wanted to know about Monday's eclipse. Among the references to be found are maps of the shortest driving routes to the path of totality from every county in the continental US. Zeiler also notes likely chokepoints that will develop as people flock to the moon's shadow. Zeiler is particularly well-equipped to provide such information. His day job is with Esri, a company that deals with Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS technology is widely used by governments and industry for many types of analyses. Scrutinizing traffic flows and identifying potential problem areas is one of them.

Zeiler predicts that anywhere from 1.9 to 7.4 million outsiders will make their way to some point along the path of totality. The wide variance is partly due to variables such as weather. You need clear skies to see an eclipse. So cloud cover on Monday could have a big impact on the volume of totality-bound traffic…especially in population-dense areas. Yet, even the low end of Zeiler's prediction asserts a significant number of travelers in a short timeframe. There could be a big strain on infrastructure and accommodations in many areas of the country.

Hotel occupancy data suggests that Zeiler's predicted travel surge is quite real. According to Heather Middleton of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation, "Music City" (the most populous town within the path of totality) generally has a hotel occupancy rate of 55% to 60% on an August Sunday. But you're not likely to find a room this weekend. "The city is basically sold out." Middleton adds that they are expecting 50,000-70,000 overnight visitors for the eclipse…not to mention the day-trippers.

Ready for the Flood

Not finding a comfy hotel room is one thing. Getting stuck in highway gridlock with swamped emergency services is quite another. Chris McIntosh is a former emergency manager. He now works for Esri, helping municipal, state, and federal agencies implement GIS-based strategies for emergency preparedness. He indicated that gearing up for the eclipse involves many of the same analyses that these organizations would do for a major storm or other large-scale event. Unlike a storm, which may provide only hours or minutes of prep time, managers across the country have spent months anticipating the eclipse. They're as ready as they can be.

McIntosh states, "The heartening thing to me is that these communities are actually improving their preparedness through the use of geospatial technology. What these organizations can do now is exponentially better than it was even 3 or 4 years ago. If there is an incident during the eclipse…or during any other event, they're really going to be much more able to respond in an efficient and effective way."

All of North America will get some flavor of a solar eclipse. Only viewers located within the 70-mile-wide path of totality will experience a total solar eclipse. (image courtesy of www.greatamericaneclipse.com)

Planners are using a number of strategies to help mitigate the impacts of the mass migration. Mike O'Connell, from the Missouri Department of Public Safety, listed several steps being taken in his state. Emergency medical services and law-enforcement agencies outside the path of totality are on stand-by to provide relief in areas where local resources become saturated. O'Connell also indicated that non-essential government employees in the capitol of Jefferson City are being given the day off. This will reduce traffic congestion and free up parking spaces. Even garbage collection is part of the big picture. Some trucks will begin their rounds as early as 3a.m. so they can be off the roads and out of the way before the eclipse arrives.

While it is easy to focus on the potential troubles created by a surge of travelers, most areas also recognize the benefits of an eclipse-driven tourism boom. Nashville expects that out-of-towners will spend 15 to 20 million dollars this weekend. O'Connell stated that Missouri is advocating camping in state parks as an alternative to booked-up hotels. According to Zeiler, a number of farmers along the path of totality are opening up their fields to campers as well.

Eclipse junkie and GIS expert, Mike Zeiler, analyzed the shortest routes to the path of totality for every location in the continental US. Significant traffic jams are expected in some areas. (image courtesy of www.greatamericaneclipse.com)

What Should You Do?

Whether you will be in the path of totality or not, there is a lot of practical advice for watching the solar eclipse. The most important factor is eye safety. NASA has a very helpful site for eclipse viewers that explains everything you need to know. The gist is that you will need appropriate eye protection when looking skyward. Glasses can be purchased at numerous locations and many libraries are conducting eclipse viewing events with free glasses. Of course, you could always go low-tech and make a pinhole camera.

Esri's interactive story map provides a great overview of the eclipse and suggests 10 prime viewing locales along the path of totality. Zeiler indicates that weather is the most important factor in choosing a viewing location. Even a favorable forecast is not a guarantee of clear skies. So, he also factors mobility into his choice. If clouds move in over your primary spot, you may need to drive a considerable distance to find an acceptable alternate location.

Missouri's website for eclipse travelers offers prudent advice that is applicable in any location. At a minimum, you should gas up, print directions (in case cell service is spotty), and plan alternate routes. Also make sure that you have plenty of food and water on hand so you can wait out the traffic. State officials are particularly concerned about drivers stopping on highways during the eclipse. That's obviously a dangerous thing to do any time. It's particularly inadvisable when roads are crowded and lighting conditions are awkward.

Whatever your plans are for Monday, make sure that they factor in the larger picture. The Great American Eclipse is a big deal. The last time that a total solar eclipse was visible only in the United States was 1776! Get out and enjoy it. Just be ready to share the experience with millions of others who will be taking advantage of this rare opportunity.

Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.