Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Another Lost Earth (2024 Eclipse)

2024 Eclipse Totality (As seen from near Oden, Arkansas)

For the second time in seven years, I have come away from a celestial event that was so stupefying...that I find it again difficult to verbalize my thoughts. Back in August of 2017, I traveled with my partner to rural Kentucky in order to place myself squarely on the centerline of a total solar eclipse. Since first learning of these rare events, and then witnessing an annular eclipse during my senior year of high school, I made a promise to myself to one day witness a true total eclipse (under clear skies). On that day in 2017, we stood in a small cornfield on the outskirts of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, just 500 meters from the totality centerline and very near the longest duration point along the path. We had driven several hundred miles to hunt for high atmospheric order to give us the best odds for clear skies. Getting there also involved a missed flight connection out of Boston, and a several-hour unplanned drive from Chicago down to St. Louis. I wrote about this entire ordeal and experience here in a post titled, "A Lost Earth". I also featured this write-up as a full chapter in my recently published collection titled, "Treks to Nowhere".

I came away from this entire experience, profoundly moved. It is truly impossible to explain to someone just how overwhelming, surreal, and....well, cosmic, a total solar eclipse is. For the two minutes and forty seconds of totality, I stood, mouth agape in absolute awe. I took only one picture, and instead just wanted to "be in the experience." I wanted to absorb every millisecond, and every sensation of the moment. I knew it would all be fleeting, and possibly the only time I'd ever have this experience. During totality, I have described my feeling as though the universe at large, somehow divided by zero. A certainty so established as the sun shining, became....uncertain, and it was eerily unsettling, but yet awe inspiring. I uttered only four words during totality, and they were, "...we are so small."

When it was over, I realized immediately that I would never be the same. I was permanently affected and changed forever. For the many hours (and days) that it took us to get back home, I couldn't get the overwhelming thoughts and feelings out of my mind. Never has a natural event had such a profound impact on me...and I've experienced earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tropical storms, the northern lights, comet viewings, meteor showers, Antarctic storms....none have come close. I suppose a significant meteor impact, nearby supernova, or alien visitation might have the same sort of effect.

During the 2017 Total Eclipse

Totality Photo during 2017 Eclipse

Path of the 2017 Eclipse

...Many years have past since this experience, and my thoughts and feelings of it have not diminished.

This past October (2023), an annular solar eclipse transited the US just up the road from where I live in Arizona. We drove up to Navajo Nation, parked along the side of the road and experienced the event over a several hour period. For this eclipse, it felt more like a curious oddity, or science experiment. It was apparent that the ambient light diminished, and there was an overall dulled eeriness in the air, but without a true totality, it just didn't have the same metaphysical and mystifying impact. It was incredible to see the "ring of fire" during the peak, and it brought up fond memories of my high school annular eclipse that were buried deep in my mind...but it just didn't invoke that resounding cosmic awe that the 2017 had. I was glad to have experienced it (and with clear skies), but it made me long for that fleeting feeling of true totality. I had become an addict.

Our set up near Dennehotso, Navajo Nation, AZ

Watching the 2023 Annular Eclipse

My doggo getting a view of the eclipse

Approaching Annular "Totality"

Annular Totality w/ "Ring of Fire"

Path of 2023 Annular Eclipse (centered right over Four Corners)

I had obviously known of the 2024 total eclipse from the moment I left Kentucky in 2017. My partner and I had decided within moments of starting our long drive back to St. Louis, that we needed to experience the feeling of totality again. Sure enough, the US would once again be host to a total solar eclipse in just seven short years in 2024. Of course to us at the time, seven years seemed like an eternity to have to wait in order to experience totality again, but we were at the mercy of those pesky celestial laws of motion. Curse you Kepler! 

Incidentally, one of the things that I immediately noticed about the 2024 eclipse is that the path of totality would actually be crossing directly over my childhood home town in upstate New York. Of course given the location along the Great Lakes, the odds of overcast would be exceedingly high. So, in the few days following the 2017 eclipse we collectively decided that we'd likely instead try to find our way to southern Texas where the clear sky odds would be more in our favor. We effectively "Saved the Date," and then went on with our lives. I can say that once you experience a total eclipse, waiting for the worse than waiting for Christmas as a child. It feels as though it may never come. In addition, nothing about it is certain. The entire path may be cursed with bad weather, or travel may simply become unworkable. It's entirely possible that you make complex plans, spend thousands of dollars, and then have no way to reach clear skies during the short window of time leading up to the eclipse. The nice thing about have a long transit path across the continental US, is that the odds of being able to drive to sunny skies are greatly increased. There are eclipses that cross only a sliver of land, and if that area is under overcast skies, it's just not possible to relocate. What this all means is that while we penciled in southern Texas for our likely viewing location, we knew that this plan was very likely to change. Like with 2017, we would plan fly to a large city along the totality path, and then venture out from there by car, never deviating too far from that path of totality.

2024 Eclipse Path

In the years following the 2017 event, our lives changed dramatically. In 2019, we completely picked up our lives in New England and headed to Flagstaff Arizona to start a new life chapter, and new jobs. Today, that seems like a lifetime ago. We survived the bumpiness of integrating into a new University and our new academic roles. We survived a global pandemic and all of the ridiculousness that came with that. I picked up entirely new hobbies (adventure motorcycling), and ran several dozen ultramarathons (including the Hardrock 100 and Western States 100 ....twice!). Needless to say, much has happened in the past seven years. I had just turned 40 years old for the 2017 eclipse...and now my fifties are creeping up on the horizon. 

Following the October 2023 annular eclipse, my excitement level began to increase markedly for the 2024 total eclipse. Immediately following the winter holidays, we began our making plans in earnest. We determined that flying to Dallas would be the best bet as it would give us many options for follow-up travel. We would have access to a large airport (minimizing risk of flight problems), and we could fly direct from Phoenix. We'd also have access to a large rental car fleet. In January, we booked flights, hotel rooms, and rental cars without any issue, and then simply waited. At the time of this planning, we had continued to assume our plan would be to drive south and west away from Dallas towards the more arid parts of Texas (and closer to Mexico). Little did we know that we'd ultimately be doing the exact opposite when the eclipse weekend finally approached.

April 2024

The week before the eclipse, we got our first bit of bad news. The long-range forecasts were not looking favorable at all. Not only were all models forecasting overcast skies near Dallas, but nearly all of Texas was projected to be covered. There was actually a moment where we even debated whether or not to go. Looking back now, I can't believe I even considered this. I would have never forgiven myself for not even trying.  We had had a really busy few weeks leading up to the eclipse, and were both quite burned out. It was hard to get motivated and excited. Two nights before our flights were scheduled to leave, we both agreed that we needed to try. There wasn't going to be another US total eclipse crossing the lower 48 until 21 years. Were we willing to wait that long? No...we were not. We tried to stay hopeful, but he forecasts looked miserable.

But then we got a glimmer of good news and hope. As we boarded our flights for Dallas, the forecast improved slightly. Texas still looked miserable, but if we chose to drive up towards Arkansas, the cloud forecast was showing places with only 20% coverage. This would mean driving over 250 miles on the morning of the eclipse...which to me was really only a mild inconvenience. What's a few hours in a car, after waiting 7 years?

We landed in Dallas late on Saturday night and checked into our hotel after midnight. The following morning I picked up our rental car and we spent the day relaxing under perfectly clear skies. It was mildly frustrating that we had such gorgeous skies just 24 hours before the eclipse, but we chose to trust the forecast.

We relocated to our original hotel on the outskirts of Dallas, then planned to wake up at 4:00 AM on Monday to get ahead of any potential traffic back ups. We'd drive North and East to the town of Clarksville near the OK and AR borders. Depending on the morning cloud forecast, we'd then decide if we would push on further.

After a restless night of sleep, we woke up Monday at 4:00 am ready embark. Traffic looked green across the board, but I was still anxious to get out of the urban chaos of Dallas and into more rural areas. The early morning driving was quiet and the traffic surprisingly light. There were the ominous signs along the highway warning of heavy traffic jams during the eclipse which of course didn't help with my anxiety.

As we made it further north and east, and away from Dallas, I felt much better about our situation. When we arrived in Clarksville, the skies were clear, but the forecast was still showing nearly full cloud cover by noon. So, despite the temptation to stay, we decided to push on towards the town of DeQueen, Arkansas. The forecast there was much more favorable, with only a projected 30% cloud coverage for after noon.

So...we pushed on. About 80 miles later, we rolled into the small town of De Queen, and found a local park to set up. Skies looked good, so we unloaded our car, set up our camera tri-pod, prepared a comfortable place to sit...and began the waiting game. About 30 minutes later, the clouds came, and we were entirely socked in. We tried to convince ourselves that it was just a passing band, but the longer we stayed, the more anxious we got that it wasn't going to clear. We debated for quite some time about whether or not to stay put, or risk moving on...and again, we decided to trust the nasa cloud forecast. Time was running short, but we opted to packup in a hurry, and push on further north and east where the forecast was projecting much less cloud cover. As we frantically packed up, others at the park watched us. The shook their heads as if to say, "don't do'll regret leaving. It's better to stay put...."

The overcast view from De Queen...booo!

But we didn't stay put. We chose to trust our guts and move on. All projections had central Arkansas as being more favorable. We jumped in the car, knowing we'd only have about 90 minutes until the very start of eclipse so wouldn't have much time to get settled some place new. We also knew this might mean we get stuck in traffic somewhere, so made sure to stay on the center line so that if we had to, we could simply pull the car over and watch from the highway (not ideal, but certainly and option).

A quick glance of the map had us heading towards the town of Pencil Bluff, AR. It was on the center line, and had cloud coverage forecasts of less than 20%. We'd arrive about 30 minutes before the start of the eclipse. On the ride to Pencil Bluff, we rode along winding rural rounds, getting stuck behind many cars going incredibly slow...and we started getting anxious.

We did eventually make it to the Pencil Bluff area and thought about setting up in the parking lot of the Dollar General store, but on the final mile before town we found a small grassy pullout just on the other side of the unincorporated town of Oden. It looked to be a prime viewing location. People were already setting up all along this rural road and so we weren't too worried about any property owners kicking us off their land. There were no houses on this property, and no gates, so figured it was probably fine. To our surprise, a few minutes after setting up, the property owner did actually pull up. Thankfully they told us that they were fine to set up there, and to just leave no trace. Not long after, we had another group pull in to share the space with us. So in short, we had once again found a rural grassy spot to set up for an eclipse...and this time, with proper permission. The skies were entirely clear, and we had just 30 minutes until the start of the moon transit (with about two hours until totality). A quick forecast check also still showed favorable skies. We agreed that this would be our viewing spot...regardless of what happened. There'd be no more relocating. Following the eclipse we would be presented with a nearly 7 hour drive back to Dallas as we really didn't wan't to go any further if we didn't have to.

Somehow, we managed to find the most ideal spot for favorable weather. When we pulled up the cloud coverage map just before totality, we were shocked at the perfect window of clear skies we found. Nearly everywhere else south and west of us, had thick clouds. 

Oden, by way of De Queen and Clarksville.

Our location in the narrow alleyway of clear skies
(clouds indicated in grey)

Viewing Location in Arkansas

Viewing Location - Exactly 1 mile from the totality center line (green)

Viewing Location just outside of Oden

Precise Viewing Location
Our viewing location outside Oden Arkansas

Setting up the camera

Using a colander to capture the eclipse

While we waited for totality, and watched the moon slowly march its way across the disc of the sun, we did get a few wispy clouds that came through...but nothing that had us anxious. Once we were within 15 minutes of totality, with nearly clear skies, we knew that we'd get the full show again. I did my best to snap occasional photos, but mostly I again wanted to just be in the moment and enjoy the experience.

As totality neared, the ambient light noticeably dimmed and the familiar sound of crickets and other evening insects began to become more audible. The uneasiness that I had felt in 2017 crept back in, and then all of the accompanying feelings of strangeness came rushing back. I immediately recalled the nearly three minutes of totality from 2017, and just how much it changed me...and I knew that it was once again imminent. This time however, we'd get almost 5 full minutes of totality....twice as long as we got in 2017.

In the final moments of sunshine the temperature had plummeted nearly 10 degrees. An eerie stillness came over our viewing area....and my perception of reality once again transitioned into an unsettling domain of supernatural and cosmic strangeness. My world was about to change.

....and then in a final lens-like flash, the last diamond of light vanished, and my glasses came off. We were in totality.

The first thing that struck me about this eclipse totality, was that the disc of the sun...appeared so much larger in the sky than I remembered it from 2017. In my mind, what I had recalled from 2017 was that during totality the dark sun appeared distant and somehow vague...almost as if it were a hole in the sky. The other thing I remembered was that I had very little time to enjoy the darkness...only 2 minutes and 41 seconds.

What I was staring at now, was what appeared to be a massive celestial body...a looming presence filling the sky. It seemed almost ominous and foreboding. It instilled a much greater sense of awe and disbelief than I had experienced seven years prior. I immediately realized why peoples of a thousand years ago interpreted eclipses as signs from the heavens. 

I snapped a few pictures quickly to get them on record, and even took another short video...expecting totality to once again be fleeting. When I had finished my "chores" a I simply stood in the shadow of celestial wonderment. The blacked-out sun was just so enormous and it almost felt as though it were growing. That feeling of the universe dividing by zero was markedly more powerful than I had remembered....and I caught myself having to look away a few times just to make sure that the world around me was still part of my greater reality.

After an eternity of trance-like stupor, I finally looked down at my watch....only 50 seconds had passed! How was that possible?! I started wondering if eclipses somehow alter our perception of time. I stood next to my partner for the next 3 and a half minutes, and we both just remained motionless capturing every single mental and sensory detail that would could. There were no more pictures and no more words...and we were beyond rational thought.

Seconds ticked by in slow motion. At one point we both gasped as we could see visible solar prominences and flares leaping out of the sun's surface and into its corona. These appeared as faint red loops at the edge of the eclipse that were about five times larger than Earth itself. I did not notice any such solar events during the 2017 eclipse, so this was something new for us both. I could tell there were other eclipse viewers nearby as I heard an occasional "wow!" or "woah!" coming up from the adjacent cornfield. For the most part though, it was strangely still and quiet, and we were both entirely absorbed and lost in the moment.

Time continued to trickle by. I checked my watch. and we had only just passed 2:41...the length of the 2017 eclipse. I couldn't believe we still had over two minutes left! Those final two minutes were the icing on the cake....uncharted territory, as it were. There was enough time during totality that I could truly let my mind wander, and ponder the immensity of the universe. I had entire conversations in my mind about so many many much wonder. The Earth had again, become somehow lost.

Mostly, I was just so very happy that we had made it to a place where we could once again experience the totality of a solar eclipse. I was glad we had decided to do whatever we could to make these nearly five minutes possible. It was all absolutely worth it. I would have driven across the country for this experience...of that I am now even more certain.

2024 Eclipse Totality

My only blurry photo taken during totality

When the diamond of light finally appeared on the opposite side of the sun, I put my glasses back on and let out a long sigh. It was over. The universe was again unstuck and progressing forward. For a few moments I had wondered if perhaps reality itself had broken was relieved that things were once again as they should be.

For the next 90 minutes, we continued to snap photos of the eclipse as the moon completed its march across the sun. We allowed ourselves to slowly come back down from the experience and by the time the eclipse was entirely over, we were ready to pack up and start the long journey home. We both agreed that we were once again changed forever and that this eclipse had been more dramatic than the first (despite the first being more meaningful in some regards as it was our first).

The travel home was long: A six hour car ride through thunderstorms, followed by several flights back to Phoenix, and a then a midnight drive back up to Flagstaff. On our drive back to Dallas following the eclipse, the sunset was spectacular. A pale orange sun loomed large on the horizon, draped by thin clouds. It's almost as though it was giving us a little encore of sorts. Quite a spectacular day for our wee little main sequence star. 

The setting sun on eclipse day

Another view of the setting sun

This morning, I had to teach a class and my mind was all over the place. It was hard to concentrate and I still don't feel like I'm integrated back into a "normal" mental state. It truly takes time to recover from an experience so surreal as this.

So what is next? As of now, that is unclear. We were fortunate to observe two total solar eclipses in 7 years (under clear skies), and even an annular eclipse in our backyard. There won't be another true eclipse in the US for over 20 years (unless we want to go up to Utqiagvik in northern Alaska during winter in a few years). Internationally, our prospects are much better. In 2026 there will be an eclipse that transits across Iceland with Reykjavik and the West Fjordlands being in the path of totality. The problem with Iceland of course is that it is often cloudy. There will also be an eclipse across New Zealand (during winter), and one across Africa that will transit very near the pyramids. As of now, we're considering Iceland, although we have already vacationed there (coincidentally right after the 2017 eclipse).

So what this all means is that we don't know yet. Certainly if we're still around in 2045, we'll be trekking to that eclipse here in the US, but in the meantime, we're just not sure. If I were a betting man, I would say that theres a pretty good chance we'll make some travel plans in the next decade to see another total eclipse.

Note: One piece of sad news to come from the eclipse is that my data logger that I prepared and set up to log temperature, humidity, and solar data during the eclipse failed to log any data. I'm not entirely sure why this happened, but the short of it was that it failed to launch correctly when I initiated the device. This was a huge disappointment for me as I really enjoyed plotting up the data from 2017 and was excited to compare the numbers. Not much I can do about it now....

The 2017 and 2024 eclipse paths

Photo taken following the eclipse from our viewing location

My data logger that failed to capture any usable data.

Our photo "sun-lapse" of the 2024 eclipse