The Upcoming Total Eclipse of the Sun has a Potential Dark Side cover

The Upcoming Total Eclipse of the Sun has a Potential Dark Side

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Ha ha. You thought the total solar eclipse on August 21 was going to be a fun thing as well as a glorious natural phenomenon, right?
Nope. Turns out that the eclipse is packing a collection of potential crises.
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The Upcoming Total Eclipse of the Sun has a Potential Dark Side

Ha ha. You thought the total solar eclipse on August 21 was going to be a fun thing as well as a glorious natural phenomenon, right?

Nope. Turns out that the eclipse is packing a collection of potential crises.

Let us hope the doom and gloom are just examples of the media tendency to define news as mostly the bad stuff that might happen to spoil an otherwise exhilarating, inspiring, and rare natural event. In the great chase for attention, even remarkable phenomena get seen from their least flattering angle.

Assuming we haven’t been annihilated in a nuclear war with North Korea before August 21, here is the unpleasantness that some prophets are forecasting.

What's the Worst That Can Happen?

Jenni Bergal notes at HuffPost that millions of people are expected to be on the road, especially in the narrow strip of territory slicing across the US from Oregon to South Carolina where the total eclipse will be visible.

“Transportation officials are worried not only about massive traffic jams but potential crashes that could result from drivers focusing on the skies, not the road,” she says. Be prepared for traffic, breakdowns, and getting stuck. You’ll need a full tank of gas, extra food and water. “The best advice is to find a safe location, arrive there early, stay put, and leave late,” one transportation official told her.

Starts with a Bang’s Ethan Siegel focuses on smoke from the wildfires running rampant over the Pacific Northwest. He thinks they could make a mess of eclipse-viewing, not to mention being actively dangerous to eclipse-viewers, especially along the traffic-jammed narrow path where the total eclipse will be visible.

Forecasts are for a million people to be on Oregon’s roads, each of them trying to catch a glimpse. Or take a selfie.

“With hundreds of thousands of inexperienced campers flocking to the region — many of which don’t understand the dangers of wildfires — it’s not a question of whether there will be wildfires, but how bad the problem will be,” Siegel foresees. Here’s his inventive (farfetched, I hope?) scenario: “The biggest culprit for starting wildfires may prove to be cars, as a hot undercarriage or tailpipe can ignite that brush found at campsites or on the sides of roads. Simply being caught in traffic may be enough.”

Oy.

Hazards of Solar Energy You Haven't Thought About Before

At FiveThirtyEight, Maggie Koerth-Baker explains why the US’s recent substantial growth in solar energy will instead become a potential risk factor on the 21st. She says, “when the sun vanishes for 2 minutes and 43 seconds, the electricity it produces will vanish with it, potentially destabilizing any part of the [electric] grid that relies on much solar power.”

That’s even though solar produces only about 1% of electricity nationwide right now. But that percentage varies. It’s more than 3% in North Carolina, was briefly 2% nationwide in March, and a startling 50% in California for three hours on March 11.

Photo by Heather Emond on Unsplash

Energy experts don’t really expect this eclipse to have a big impact on the grid this time. But another total solar eclipse is coming along in 2024, when the nation’s reliance on solar is expected to be much greater. Stay tuned. Buy candles. Or a generator.

Whew. But There Will, After All, be Some Fun Science Stuff

It’s not all smoky skies and road hazards. NASA would like to press you into service collecting eclipse data. Earth scientist Laura Guertin tells all about it, and about the Global Observer eclipse app at the American Geophysical Union blog GeoEd Trek.

Other citizen science eclipse projects–from the eclipse megamovie to observations on plant and animal behavior–are described by Caroline Graybeal at the Citizen Science Salon. In a different post at that blog, Graybeal gives detail about participatory animal observation projects.

Photo courtesy: NASA

Assuming you’re not part of the mob scene in the narrow path of totality, you can still get an impressive view of the partial eclipse, which will be visible all over North America. To find out what you can expect at your locale on August 21, just plug your zipcode into this Vox post.

Eclipse basics, including how astronomers predict eclipses, are to be had at astronomer Shannon Schmoll’s post at The Conversation. Fred Espenak provides a checklist of what you’ll need for eclipse viewing at EarthSky.

Eclipses as Bad Omens

At The Conversation, the classicist Gonzalo Rubio credits Babylonian astronomers with being the first to predict the natural cycle of eclipses of both the sun and moon, now called a Saros cycle. A Saros cycle comprises the approximately 38 solar or lunar eclipses that occur every 18 months.

But astronomy and astrology were pretty much the same thing in ancient times–Babylonians invented the zodiac. So along with their eclipse prediction science, ancient astronomers also thought eclipses were omens, tied, for instance, to the fate of the ruler.

Fortunately, we now live in the 21st century and are free of such superstition. Except for the one about how the secret planet “Nibiru” will smash into Earth around the time of the forthcoming eclipse, which has Eric Berger rolling his eyes at Ars Technica. “It’s depressing how quickly this bollocks spreads,” one British astronomer sighed to him.

It just occurred to me: perhaps the forecasts of how the eclipse might bring about automobile-caused wildfires and collapse of the electrical grid are simply 21st-century technologized versions of those Babylonian bad omens. No matter how much we learn about the science of eclipses, in a primitive part of our brains perhaps the shock of blotting out the life-giving Sun, even briefly, still arouses dread.

Viewing an eclipse safely at Arches National Park in 2012. Credit: AlbertHerring

Safety First

Whatever the road hazards or lack thereof, don’t forget that a solar eclipse is potentially dangerous to your eyes and to your camera. At SciAm, Lydia Chain, Michael Lemonick, and Lee Billings have put together a video primer on how to keep them both safe.