Issue Features

Swallowing the Sun

Jul 03

Total Solar Eclipse of 2017

Samantha Sopher

A pair of wolves chase an orb of light, yipping and snapping at the edges of its rays. One of them catches it and the light goes out, surrounding them in darkness. This is what the Vikings believed caused solar eclipses. A pair of wolves chased the sun, and when it was caught the eclipse started. Many ancient cultures believed that a solar eclipse happened when someone, or something, swallowed the sun, only to spit it out later.

Later this summer, the metaphorical wolves will return when a total solar eclipse will swallow the sun on Aug. 21. It will be visible from the southern Appalachian region in a section roughly 70 miles wide, passing between Oregon and South Carolina.

Solar eclipses are mistakenly considered rare, when in fact one occurs on the Earth once every 18 months. The event, however, is only visible to one area every 360 to 375 years. The angle of Earth, the distance of the moon, and Earth’s location in its cycle around the sun are all reasons why solar eclipses are rarely viewed from the same place twice. Steve Morgan, an astronomy instructor at Young Harris College and director of the O. Wayne Rollins Planetarium, remembers the first time he viewed an eclipse in 1970. “I was only 11 then [and] viewing the eclipse from my grandparents’ house in North Carolina,” he said. “I can remember how dark the sky appeared, and how the light had a certain unusual quality to it during the eclipse. I also remember being amazed that such a thing could be accurately predicted far in advance.” Since then, he has viewed roughly eight eclipses so far, each one just as memorable as the first.

A total solar eclipse is when the moon covers the sun during the day and casts a shadow on the Earth, much like how a total lunar eclipse is when the Earth covers the sun, therefore casting a shadow on the moon. When a total solar eclipse occurs, it is only visible to a small portion of the world. Another type of eclipse is the annular eclipse, which is when the moon only covers a part of the sun, leaving a ring of sunlight visible around it. There is a third type of solar eclipse that is considered quite rare: the hybrid eclipse. This is when the eclipse shifts between a total solar eclipse and an annular solar eclipse.

When viewing a total solar eclipse, Morgan emphasized the importance of protecting your eyes.

“Eye safety is a very important consideration when observing an eclipse. The main thing to remember is to avoid staring at the eclipse with the naked eye if any part of the sun is still visible. The sunlight can damage your retina, possibly resulting in permanent eye damage or even blindness,” he said. Morgan recommends using special solar eclipse glasses such as ISO or CE certified glasses, which are made especially for safely viewing the solar eclipse. They are much darker than ordinary sunglasses, which are not safe.

For an even better viewing experience, wait until the solar eclipse reaches totality. At this point, the Earth will be dark, and the solar eclipse glasses can be removed to look at the eclipse. However, be prepared to put them back on as soon as totality ends or eye damage can occur. For best viewing, Morgan advises that people try to be in the 70-mile-wide path of totality. “There’s simply no comparison between a partial and a total eclipse,” he said. “It makes me feel fortunate to be alive and standing in the right place at the right time to witness such a celestial spectacle.”

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