August’s Great American Solar Eclipse: Everything You Need To Know

On August 21st, 2016, the entire US, and only the US, is going to get to see a rare event, one that hasn’t happened since 1776: A complete solar eclipse. Are people excited? You’d better freaking believe it! It’s become the must-see event of Summer#17. But, what is it, where can you see it, and why should you be excited?

Here’s everything you need to know about the August eclipse.

What’s The Big Deal?


Total solar eclipses, which is where the Earth, the moon, and the sun line up perfectly to block out the sun’s rays (also called a syzygy), happen fairly frequently, really; there’s usually one visible somewhere on Earth every 18 months or so. But there’s only one visible in a given location, in this case the United States, every four centuries. Hey, the Earth is a big place and most of it’s water. Fish don’t care about eclipses, but for us, they’re pretty cool, and people are getting excited accordingly.

It’s also unique in that the eclipse will be moving from coast to coast, giving scientists over an hour to view the sun’s corona and perform other astronomical experiments that aren’t normally possible. For the rest of us, it’ll just be really neat, and something we’re unlikely to see ever again. Fortunately, we’ll all get to see it.

Where And When Can I See It? What’s The Best Spot?

Anywhere in the continental United States! The best views will be in a swath that crosses the country, but even Alaskans and Floridians will see at least a partial eclipse as they go about their business. The majority of America will see between 60% and 100% of the eclipse, as the moon rotates into orbit and the “totality” (i.e. the moon completely in front of the sun) is achieved. The best places to watch will be in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina. Check out NASA’s handy map, above.

As for timing, it’ll arrive on the West Coast at about 9:06am local time, with Madras, OR, being the best place to see it in full, and then cross the country over the space of eight hours, ending in Columbia, SC, at about 4:06pm. The whole event, from start to finish, will take about three hours. For your area, NASA has a useful interactive map that’ll show you what to expect.

What’s Actually Going To Happen?

A lot will happen as the eclipse kicks in. Obviously it will get dark; technically we’re going to be in the moon’s shadow. The temperature will drop, insects will start acting like it’s dusk (bring the bug spray!) and animals will be as weirded out as humans were back when they didn’t know what was happening.

On an astronomical level, the sun’s corona, an aura of plasma usually blotted out by its sheer visible light, will be observable. It’ll look like the moon is surrounded by pale wisps of pink and green with a rind of light surrounding it. Scientists rarely get to see this, so they’ll be scrambling to photograph it. Psychologically, you might want to brace yourself; a solar eclipse is a majestic sight.

How Should I View It?

Even with the moon in front of it, staring directly at the sun is a terrible idea. Instead, look for eyewear that’s ISO 12312-2:2015 certified; it’ll say that on the packaging, or you might already own safety gear with this certification. If you want to be sure, search Amazon for that certification. There are a lot of cheap “eclipse glasses” out there as well, including some official ones, currently on back order.

Or if you have a telescope, try a “sun funnel.” It’s a simple way to observe the eclipse. Or, if all else fails, make a pinhole projector that will let you indirectly observe it.

Any Other Tips?

– Even if you’re uninterested in a once-in-a-lifetime solar event, keep the time in mind for your area. It is going to get dark, obviously, so it’ll be good to know that’s coming.

– It’s probably wise to stay off the roads during an eclipse. Not everybody will see it coming, living in their own little bubbles, and that may lead to a lot of distracted driving.

– Remember that it’s three hours long, and that you won’t be the only one viewing. Like any major event, stake out any spot a few hours before it actually happens, if you plan to watch the whole thing at a park or other public space.

– Have some fun! Whether you go whole hog and watch it with custom eyeglasses, or just punch a hole in a note card and look at it at lunch, this is a genuinely fascinating little moment, science writ large in front of all of us.