Solar eclipse: Iowans look upward, but clouds get in the way

Sliver of sun peeks through during shared experience

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Canceling class on the first day of school is fairly uncommon. But, then again, so are solar eclipses.

So at a time when throngs of new and returning University of Iowa students should have been crisscrossing the campus to get to class, hundreds either skipped class, enjoyed a rare excused absence or capitalized on a serendipitous schedule that allowed them to take a seat on the Pentacrest lawn and turn their eyes upward.

“All my classes got canceled today,” UI junior Ashley Espinosa, 20, said. “My physics teacher studies it, so he’s like ‘Classes aren’t gonna happen.’ ”

That teacher — UI physics and astronomy Professor Steven Spangler, whose research specialties include solar wind and solar cornea — didn’t actually cancel class, according to the email he sent students last month.

He just postponed it.

“The reason for the postponement is that on August 21, there will be a total eclipse of the sun,” he wrote. “Although the eclipse will not be total in Iowa, nearly 95 percent of the sun will be blocked at the darkest point.”

He encouraged students to take advantage of the historic moment — the last coast-to-coast total solar eclipse was in 1918, and the next won’t occur until 2045.

Many across Eastern Iowa did just that — at the Cedar Rapids, Marion and Iowa City public libraries, the Palisades-Dows Observatory and the Cedar Rapids Kernels game.

Can’t control weather

Unfortunately, Eastern Iowa’s view of the solar eclipse did not reach its stellar potential Monday, thanks to less than ideal weather conditions — clouds, although not insurmountably thick — blanketed the region, leaving some expectant spectators bummed.

“I’m angry,” UI sophomore Sloane Terrill, 19, said.

Ping Sung, who went to the Kernels game with her family, stayed optimistic even as the 1:12 p.m. peak neared with no clearing in sight.

“There’s still hope,” she said around noon.

Thankfully, Sung added, the game provided an entertainment alternative — should clouds insist on blocking the celestial phenomenon.

The Kernels for its eclipse event collaborated with Cedar Amateur Astronomers Inc., a local society of astronomy enthusiasts that set up a telescope and camera in hopes of feeding the field’s big screen.

But the group used a NASA stream instead — as clouds blocked the telescope’s view, said CAA member Carl Bracken.

“If there’s anything that all astronomers know to be true, it’s that one thing is always out of your control,” Bracken said. “The weather.”

Shrouded sun

Despite subpar viewing conditions, many of those gathered on the UI Pentacrest said they enjoyed the novel experience of bonding with their new community on the first day of classes.

Even UI President Bruce Harreld — along with the administrators students, and faculty he was meeting with at the time — took a break to step outside and stare, with the help of protective glasses, at the shrouded sun.

“I’ve never seen this many people congregating,” UI sophomore Hannah Meritt, 19, said. “Or have a teacher let you out of class on the first day.”

UI freshman Lakyn Belk, 18, said the eclipse, and the congregating it inspired, created a unique atmosphere for her first day as a Hawkeye. On the opposite end of the undergraduate spectrum, UI senior Elizabeth Niedert said the solar event made her last first day hard to forget.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Niedert, 21, said.

Merrit, while squatting with two friends on the Pentacrest, seemed to be pleasantly surprised by what she could actually see of the moon’s pass between Earth and the veiled sun.

“Oh, my gosh, I can see it,” she said. “Wow. That is so cool.”

And Caitlin Bruns, a 24-year-old UI Hospitals and Clinics nurse who had the day off, found something to appreciate about the lack of blue sky. While listening to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler on repeat, Bruns noted, “There’s thunder effects in ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’ and I feel like it’s about to thunderstorm — so I feel like it’s a bit more powerful.”

Eclipse interview (The arrival of Total Eclipse)

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