'Once in a lifetime chance:' Eastern Iowans hitting the road to view Monday's solar eclipse
If the weather holds, Cedar Rapids area to see 92 percent obscuration
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Andy Carr isn’t particularly interested in astronomy, but he and his two teenage daughters are planning to drive upward of 10 hours on Monday to see the total solar eclipse in Missouri.
“One of my daughters is grown, and one is nearly grown,” said Carr, who lives in Cedar Rapids. “We’re running out of time to make memories, so I thought this would be a good chance to do something fun.”
While some Iowans are eagerly awaiting the partial eclipse that will be visible over the state on Monday, Carr and many others are traveling out of state to be in the path of totality — where the eclipse is at 100 percent — which stretches across 12 states from Oregon to South Carolina.
University of Iowa physics and astronomy professor Steven Spangler also is journeying to see the total eclipse — a trip he said is more than a year and a half in the making.
“It’s one of the most spectacular phenomena,” Spangler said. “One of my (research) focuses is the solar corona, so this is a chance to actually see it with my own eyes.”
A rare event
A solar eclipse happens when the moon travels between the sun and Earth, casting a shadow on Earth, Spangler said.
Now, the moon’s angular size — how big it looks from Earth — is just right to cover up the disc of the sun, Spangler said. The shadow is cone-shaped, and by the time it reaches Earth, it’s much smaller than the actual size of the moon, he said.
The umbra, or the deep shadow during an eclipse in which all sunlight is blocked, will span about 100 miles in width on Earth, he said. The moon’s diameter is more than 2,000 miles, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“What happens is the moon is moving in its orbit around the sun, and we’re in our orbit around the sun, so it’s kind of like a moving skeet shoot,” Spangler explained. “The little shadow then ... sweeps across the Earth.”
The path of totality Monday encompasses about 11 major cities. The total eclipse will be visible for a maximum of 2 minutes 43 seconds, according to NASA, but duration will vary across the country.
During a total eclipse, stars and planets are visible, and birds and animals act differently, Spangler said.
Iowa, the majority of which is not in the path of totality, will be in the eclipse’s penumbra. The penumbra is where some, but not all, light is blocked by the moon, Spangler said.
A small portion of Southwest Iowa will experience totality for several seconds, according to NASA.
The Cedar Rapids area will experience about 92 percent obscuration, meaning sunlight levels will be at 8 percent of normal. The eclipse will start around 11:45 a.m., peak at 1:12 p.m. and end at about 2:30 p.m.
Eastern Iowans should also make sure to look at the ground during the eclipse, said University of Iowa physics and astronomy associate professor Cornelia Lang.
“The shadows during a partial solar eclipse are really, really fantastic. ... Normally, your shadows would look solid, but they’ll be crescent shaped,” she said, explaining that the rounded sliver of sun not blocked by the moon causes the crescent effect.
The last total solar eclipse in the continental United States happened in 1979, Spangler said.
These phenomena happen every few years worldwide, but since the shadows are so small, the fact that this one will span the entire U.S. makes it special, he explained.
Hopes for clear skies
If there are cloudy skies Monday, eclipse enthusiasts might miss out.
A tentative Monday forecast for Eastern Iowa shows a chance of rain, said Brian Pierce, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Quad Cities Office.
“If you’ve got rain clouds, you’re not going to see anything. Ideally, a clear sky would be best,” he said, adding that thin, wispy clouds like cirrus or cirrostratus clouds might not obscure views too much.
However, storm systems are difficult to predict, Pierce said, so hopeful eclipse watchers should start paying closer attention to the forecast Sunday.
The eclipse and your eyes
Regardless of the weather, eclipse viewers must protect their eyes from the sun’s harmful rays, said Dr. James Folk, an ophthalmologist and professor at the University of Iowa.
“Because light with a partial eclipse is not as bright, (people) think it’s safe,” Folk said. “They shouldn’t stare at it at all, but certainly if they stare at it for 15 seconds, they can get (permanent) damage.”
The sun’s ultraviolet rays are too intense for the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye, called the retina. Without proper protection, sunlight can burn the retina and cause irreversible injury in a matter of seconds, he said.
Since this type of burn doesn’t hurt, people might not even realize it’s happening, Folk said. Symptoms of retina damage include dark spots in the central line of vision — like those that appear after having a picture taken with bright flash — and vision fuzziness.
Sometimes the eye heals itself and sufferers regain their vision. However, Folk has seen several patients who never recover. In severe cases, patients may become legally blind, he said.
Some with milder damage still might not be able to drive alone or read since the injury impacts the macula, or central vision, Folk said.
To avoid retina damage, people planning to view the eclipse should invest in solar glasses that filter ultraviolet rays.
“Everything should be really, really dark,” Folk said. “The sun should look like a faint full moon. Those are probably good solar glasses. Even with that, just as an extra safeguard I would probably not stare at it for more than 10 seconds.”
Sunglasses will not prevent retina damage, he said. In fact, they might make injury worse because wearing sunglasses causes the pupils to dilate, making them more vulnerable to harmful rays. Cameras, telescopes and binoculars don’t block ultraviolet rays either, Folk said.
A list of certified safe solar viewer manufacturers is available at the American Astronomical Society’s website.
‘Once in a lifetime’
While some are scrambling to find lodging in the path of totality or making a day trip like Carr and his family, Cedar Rapids resident John Moore is lucky. He and his wife are traveling to Bowling Green, Ky. — on the edge of the path of totality — to stay with his parents.
“It’s going to be a zoo,” Moore said, adding that when they tried to book a campground at a state park near totality a year ago, they were already full.
“People are coming from all over the world,” he said.
Moore is not an avid astronomer, but he didn’t want to miss the opportunity to witness such a rare event.
“I have always hoped to see totality,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
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