What you need to know about August's solar eclipse

The solar eclipse coming on August 21, 2017 is a pretty big deal — here's why.
The solar eclipse coming on August 21, 2017 is a pretty big deal — here's why.


Solar eclipse is a hot ticket in the Carolinas. Here’s what you need to know.

July 12, 2017 12:56 PM

The first thing to know about the total solar eclipse that will track across the Carolinas on Aug. 21 is that, like tickets to a Broadway smash, the choicest seats are taken.

The second thing is that with a roughly 70-mile-wide swath in total eclipse, including North Carolina’s western mountains and a broad slice of South Carolina, all you really need is a clear view of the sky and a safe place to look up.

With eclipse glasses on, but more on that later.

It will be first total solar eclipse in the U.S. since 1979, when the path crossed only five states in the Northwest, and the first to travel coast-to-coast since 1918. The August event will cut across 14 states from the Oregon coast to Charleston, S.C.

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Charlotte will see a partial eclipse for nearly three hours, starting at 1:12 p.m. and peaking at 2:41 p.m. Most places in North Carolina will see a partial eclipse of 90 percent totality or more.

Inside the arc of total eclipse on that Monday afternoon, as the moon briefly covers the sun, Earth will go dark for two minutes or less of utter wonder.

This March 9, 2016 file photo shows a total solar eclipse in Belitung, Indonesia. Hotel rooms already are going fast in states along the path of this year’s solar eclipse.

Birds will go quiet. The wind will fade and temperature drop. Stars will glitter like diamonds. In ancient times, we would bang pots and drums to drive away the celestial demon devouring the sun.

More prosaically, Carolinas towns large and small hope to cash in on a lifetime event.

Traffic in the eclipse zone will be a bear. And cloudy skies could ruin everything. But for now, the eclipse zone is abuzz with anticipation.

Bryson City, a town of 1,500 south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, expects to pull in at least 15,000 eclipse viewers. Rooms for the night before the eclipse are booked solid to visitors from as far as Rhode Island.

Staff at local businesses have worn black, concert-style eclipse T-shirts since May, and will offer eclipse-themed events through the weekend. An eclipse-viewing excursion on the scenic Great Smoky Mountains Railroad sold out a month ago. The Swain County school system pushed the start of school ahead a day, to Tuesday.

“If we’re able to pull people from that far away for this, then I really think this is going to be incredibly big here,” said Karen Proctor Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce.

Made for eclipse

For decades, a federal installation deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains tracked NASA astronauts and Soviet spy satellites. Next month the site, now a science education center, will again turn its giant ears to the sky.

When the solar eclipse tracks across western North Carolina, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute near Rosman will power up some of the most advanced equipment in astronomy.

As most viewers gape in awe, PARI’s radio telescopes – including two 85-foot dishes – will be doing real science during the 1 minute 47 seconds of total darkness there.

The telescopes will measure the brightness temperature of the sun’s corona as a function of distance from its surface, possibly detecting evidence of neutral hydrogen in the corona.

A NASA team will launch a high-altitude balloon to live-stream the eclipse from the near-space altitude of 90,000 feet. Three hundred astronomers from around the globe will peer into their instruments.

The center expects 1,000 people at the sold-out event, and has hopes the eclipse will help broaden the center’s audience.

“The way we look at it, this is pretty much made for PARI,” said spokesman Chris Price.

Sellouts and alternatives

Columbia, S.C., bills itself as the total solar eclipse capital of the East Coast. It could also be called the heart of darkness: The eclipse will cut diagonally across South Carolina and is expected to draw up to 1 million visitors.

Columbia will stage more than 50 eclipse events over four days.

“Our football games are definitely always a huge draw, but I think this will probably outweigh that because there are so many things going on all over town that are not confined to one area,” said Dayna Cantelmi of Experience Columbia SC.

A poll of 11 local hotels in early July found 86 percent of their rooms already taken for the Sunday night before the eclipse.

A viewing party at the South Carolina State Museum has sold out its 3,400 tickets, but the large Solar 17 party at Lake Murray will accommodate 3,000 to 5,000 viewers.

Hopkinsville is among the small, rural towns in southwestern Kentucky that are preparing for the first total solar eclipse to cross the U.S. in 99 years.
Alex Sanz AP

The nation’s most heavily-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains, will get 2 minutes 26 seconds of totality on its Tennessee side.

The 1,325 tickets offered in February for an eclipse-gazing event at Clingman’s Dome, near the North Carolina-Tennessee line, sold out in five minutes. The eclipse view from the mountain’s iconic tower will also be broadcast live on NASA 360.

The park warns visitors to prepare for heavy traffic. Rangers may close roads to full parking areas and already plan to close busy Newfound Gap Road, the main road through the park between Cherokee and Gatlinburg, Tenn., early in the day.

Other popular areas in the park, including the sprawling meadow of Cades Cove in Tennessee and a field at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center near Cherokee, will have free educational programs but will close to new visitors when full.

Heavy traffic

North Carolina’s State Highway Patrol has been planning for the eclipse for weeks, said Sgt. Michael Baker. Extra staff will be deployed to handle heavy traffic in the western counties and in routes to South Carolina.

The state Department of Transportation will suspend most construction projects and lane closures Aug. 19 through Aug. 22. Real-time updates will be at 511 or DriveNC.gov.

DOT warns drivers to watch for pedestrians and drivers distracted by the eclipse. Drivers should not stop on interstates or park on the shoulders to view it.

“Do not wear eclipse glasses while driving,” the department warns.

The path of the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse across western North Carolina.

South Carolina’s Department of Public Safety also emphasizes safety on Aug. 21.

“Obviously our concern is the congestion of traffic, not only the day of the event but the days around it, and concerns about people being distracted or disoriented, and maybe people trying to stop on the roadway,” said Lt. Kelley Hughes of the S.C. Highway Patrol. “We’re planning to have additional troopers on hand to have high visibility. And we encourage people, if they want to view the eclipse, to get to a safe place.”

Cloudy skies?

If anything can spoil the grandeur of a total eclipse, it’s clouds. A recently-released interactive map hints at potential problems for Columbia on eclipse day.

The National Centers for Environmental Information and the Cooperative Institutes for Climate and Satellites–North Carolina crunched 10 years of weather data for Aug. 21 to produce the map.

They found that the coastal areas tend to be cloudier than those inland, and that clouds may grow as the eclipse arcs from the Northwest toward the Southeast.

Clemson, in South Carolina’s northwestern corner, has a 75 percent likelihood of favorable viewing, the map shows. Columbia has only a 44 percent chance, and Charlotte 43 percent.

But the researchers temper their outlook: past data, they say, is no guarantee of future weather.

Solar burns

Who better than an eye doctor to consult about celestial clockwork that, carelessly viewed, can blind you?

There’s no reliable data on solar retinopathy, or eclipse burns, said Dr. Ivan Schwab, a professor at the University of California-Davis and clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

But “it seems be eternal,” he said. “With every eclipse, there seem to be solar burns.”

The degree of damage varies, Schwab said, depends on factors such as age, what medications or diseases the viewer has and whether the dominant eye was affected. Symptoms may be mild and temporary, or leave some viewers with blind spots called scotomas.

Special filters and glasses that are safe for direct viewing of the sun and solar eclipses at Guilford Technical Community College in Jamestown, N.C.
Laura Greene AP

Eclipse glasses will be available for free at many viewing events and can be ordered cheaply online, and should meet the worldwide standard known as ISO 12312-2. Glasses should be worn at all times while looking at the eclipse – including in areas of partial eclipse like Charlotte – except in the moments of total eclipse.

Serious burns can result from improper use of telescopes or binoculars, Schwab warns. Specially-designed filters must be placed at the front of the instrument’s lens; don’t rely on eclipse glasses alone.

Apart from his medical expertise, Schwab and his wife are eclipse chasers. They’ve seen seven total eclipses and will view this one from Nebraska. The next one across North America will occur in 2024 but north and west of the Carolinas.

“This is one of Earth’s greatest natural history thrills,” he said. “It’s so rare that it occurs at any one point only every 150 to 250 years.”

Sunlight will stream through the mountains of the moon, producing rays called Baily’s beads. For a second or so at the beginning and end of totality, a single bead will shine like a diamond set in a bright ring around the moon’s silhouette.

And gasps, Schwab predicts, will ripple through the crowd.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender