21 Aug 2017

US towns in 'path of darkness' swell with eclipse tourists

11:36 pm on 21 August 2017

Skywatchers in the United States are preparing for the spectacular sight of a total solar eclipse.

Festival goers practice yoga at the Solar Temple at the Oregon Eclipse Festival, on August 19, 2017, a venue for the event.

Festival goers practice yoga at the Solar Temple at the Oregon Eclipse Festival Photo: AFP

The Moon is set to pass in front of the Sun, casting a deep shadow that will sweep over the nation from Oregon in the west to South Carolina in the east.

It is the first such event since 1918 where the path of darkness crosses the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and the first total solar eclipse to make landfall exclusively in the US since independence in 1776.

Children watch a presentation about the eclipse during a drive-in movie at the Historic Columbia Speedway in South Carolina. Columbia is one of the prime destinations for viewing Monday's solar eclipse and NASA expects clear weather would bring over a million visitors to the state.

Children watch a video about the eclipse at a drive-in movie in South Carolina Photo: AFP

Nasa is live-streaming an eclipse broadcast from 4am New Zealand time.

The "eclipse show" for land-dwellers begins on the Oregon coast at 09.05am local time, when skywatchers will see the moon start to traverse the Sun.

Totality is reached at 10.16am, and, assuming none of the region's famous coastal fogs are in attendance, people will get 1 minute, 59 seconds of full darkness.

The Moon's shadow then races across the continent through 13 more states - a journey that will take roughly 90 minutes.

People lucky enough to be directly in the path of deepest shadow - "totality" - and blessed with a clear sky will witness the Sun's light blocked out for up to two minutes and 40 seconds.

Those who stand off to the side will experience a partial eclipse, which on this occasion will encompass all of North America and northern parts of South America.

State and local authorities have been preparing for Monday as if they were about to confront the fallout from some natural disaster.

"The eclipse path in the most part avoids the big cities," said Angela Specks from the American Astronomical Society's eclipse taskforce.

"It skims part of Kansas City and St Louis and then Nashville.

''But there aren't any really big cities on the path, and so you've got lot and lots of small towns, some of which don't have hotels. And they're going to be inundated with people," she said.

The place that will experience the longest period of totality (2 mins, 40 sec) is about 10km south of the city of Carbondale, Illinois.

The town, in Illinois, has billed itself as the "Eclipse Crossroads of America" because it is in the path of darkness both on Monday and when the next US eclipse occurs in 2024.

Given this status, city authorities anticipate a huge influx of visitors. Its regular population numbers 26,000 people, but for Monday more than 60,000 extra car parking spaces have been organised.

As it is, more than 12 million people live in the 115km-wide path of totality. Nearly four times that many live within a two-hour drive, and over 200 million live within a day's drive.

It is not just urban settlements that will be stretched. The National Park Service has been bringing lorry loads of portable toilets on to its lands.

The last region in the path of deepest shadow is South Carolina. The Atlantic coastal city of Charleston experiences its eclipse at 14:47 local time (18:47 GMT; 19:47 BST).

It is around this time that Europeans will be catching their partial view of the event.

Ireland, Northern Ireland, northern England and Scotland see a full partial eclipse. In Belfast, for example, this partial starts at 19:37 BST and ends at 20:23 BST.

Southern England sees the moon start to take a chunk out of the Sun just as it goes over the horizon. Skywatchers will want to make for high ground and pray that any cloud clears just at the right moment.

Many skywatchers will be waiting until as late as possible before deciding where to go, based on up-to-date weather forecasts.

Many of those who planned ahead will have consulted historical weather data, which suggests the highest probability of clear skies will be in the northwest. Madras in Oregon is a favourite.

The time of year and its position leeward of the Cascade Mountains means it would expect a more than 70 percent chance of an unobstructed view of the eclipse. In contrast, the further east along the path of totality, the higher the historical probability of cloud.

Many commentators believe Monday's eclipse will prove to be the most observed, most photographed, best documented such event in human history so far, certainly challenging the 2009 eclipse that swept across India and China.

- BBC

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs