Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Great American Eclipse Chase

When I first saw this video from Smarter Every Day and realized the plane of totality for this eclipse would pass within four or so hours of our area, I started planning. I mentioned it to my friend Tanner and he was enthusiastic about making a day trip out of it. We started asking around and ended up with a group of seven people who wanted to go eclipse chasing!

Goggle up! Science is about to happen.
We weren't exactly sure where along the path of totality would give us the best experience. Sites anywhere from Kentucky to South Carolina were possible viewing locations, but we decided to choose our destination the night before based on the weather forecast. As it turned out, we ended up road tripping to Spring City, Tennessee (population 1,988), about a four and a half hour drive away. This town is on the western shore of Watts Bar Lake, and, from their website, it looked like they were prepared for eclipse visitors!

4:30 AM comes early
We met at the local Park and Ride around 4:30 AM on Monday morning, hoping to beat day-of inbound traffic to the totality plane. We piled into my Jeep and Tanner's Ram pickup and hit the interstate.

I wasn't sure how insane the totality plane would be, so I tried to make sure we were as prepared as possible. We filled both our vehicles all the way up with fuel roughly an hour outside of the plane, and everyone packed their lunch (as we figured local restaurants would be overwhelmed). I had a small Gatorade-style cooler full of ice water and had packed a watermelon as well. From what I had read, there was a possibility that cell networks in that area would be overloaded, even though Verizon and other carriers were bringing in portable towers to try to handle the capacity, so we brought along two-way radios to communicate between the vehicles. I even packed some toilet paper as a precaution. One can never be too prepared (false, but mostly accurate).

Roadside parking
On the way down, we encountered very little traffic, except during rush hour around Knoxville, Tennessee, and arrived in Spring City about 10:00 AM. When we reached the town limits, we discovered that quite a few other people had decided that this was a prime location along the plane of totality as well! There were people parked anywhere you could fit a vehicle. It was obvious that this was the biggest event this small town had seen in a very long time, and probably will see for a while. People were selling parking spots in their yards, and I saw a sign pointing the direction to a local church, advertising free parking and breakfast pancakes!

Sure, we'll ride your bus!
We managed to find a few parking spots in the lot of the local Piggly Wiggly, although we had to pull through some grass to get to them. We piled out, sunscreened up, and set out to find out where people were gathering. As we started walking down the road, a school bus pulled up next to us, the door opened, and the driver asked, "Are you all going to the park?!" We looked at each other, paused for a few seconds, and then I said, "I guess so!" We hopped aboard and she pulled away.

The eclipse chasers: myself, Joel, John, Tanner, Haley, Krista, and Jeff
At this point, Tanner said to me, "You know. We just got on a bus in a random town, driving by someone we know nothing about, going we don't know where." I'll admit I was a little nervous as the bus began to head out of town, but the driver eventually looped around to follow what was obviously "the route." As we began talking to her we found out that Spring City had closed schools for the day and were running the buses through town, acting as free shuttles, picking people up from wherever they had parked, and bringing them to the local park where the celebration was in full swing!

Watts Bar Lake
As the day went on, it was obvious that the town had done their best to prepare for a huge influx of people, but had little bearing on how many would actually show up. Near the park, there was a line of 40 or so porta-potties, which was definitely overkill for the number of people there, but it meant no waiting for us!

We then began looking to stake out a spot to watch the eclipse, which would begin in a couple of hours. We found a trail that traced the shoreline of the lake and walked half a mile or so before finding a boat ramp and parking area that was partially shaded, yet had a good view of the lake and sun. We decided this would be our spot.

Joel finds this spot to be acceptable
After hanging out for a little bit (and talking to a guy who had flown in from Texas), we took another bus ride back to our vehicles to have lunch and grab all of our gear. We broke out our packed lunches community style in the shade of a nearby building, as the anticipation started to build. Despite what we knew about how accurately NASA can calculate eclipses, we started discussing how crazy it would be if this one just didn't happen. We (along with quite a few other people) had made some pretty crazy decisions about how we would spend our day (or weekend, as was the case for some people), based only on things we had read or other people had told us, versus being able to do the celestial mechanics calculations ourselves. It was amazing to think about how many people along the path of totality had put their total, implicit trust in something they couldn't see (yet).

Prepping for shadows bands
After lunch, we grabbed our filtered glasses, cameras, tripods, pinhole projectors, and various other assorted equipment and headed back to the spot we had staked out earlier. Our friend Anthony, who had stayed the night with another friend nearby, met us back at the boat ramp. He brought a couple more cameras and a white sheet to try to capture the shadow band phenomena (thin, wavy shadows that occur just before and after the total eclipse). As we were setting up, a lady nearby commented, "You guys look like a bunch of engineers getting ready to do some science!" Somebody in our group responded, "Well, you're not very far off!" Out of our group of eight, five of us do some kind of engineering.

Science! (And Jeff's baller shirt)
Haley tries the pinhole projector
During the eclipse we had several phones running the Solar Eclipse Timer app, which counted down to and called out the four "contact times," C1, C2, C3, and C4, as they arrived. These times and the duration between them are location dependent, so this is a great use of smartphone technology, integrating GPS positioning. At C1, the moon's disk makes first contact with the sun's. At C2 the total solar eclipse begins, and it ends a couple minutes later at C3. At C4, the moon's disk has completely cleared the face of the sun again. C1 to C2 and C3 to C4 both took about an hour and a half. C2 to C3, however (the important part), lasted only only two minutes and twenty-nine seconds for us. This was only ten seconds shorter than the longest possible observed duration in the United States, though, so I'll take it. That was still the shortest two and a half minutes of my life! It felt like ten seconds.

The group. (Sorry, John and Jeff!)
Crescent shadow
As the moon began to make its way across the face of the sun, we began to notice a few different things. First was the heat. It had been pretty hot all day, and we could tell that the temperature was beginning to drop (although it was still pretty warm). It also began to get gradually darker. Not dramatically, but enough to be noticeable. However, my favorite thing about the partial eclipse phase was the shadows that were being cast. Since the light coming from the sun was now in the shape of a crescent, this changed the shadows as well! John's pinhole projectors made it very easy to see this, but you could also create the same shadow yourself, using your hand. In the shade under the trees, it was even more dramatic, as the light filtered through the leaves, casting hundreds of "crescent sun" shadows!
I will take a moment here to say that although the partial eclipse was cool, that last 1%, as we approached C2 made all the difference in the world. A lot of people were happy to see a 75% or even 95% eclipse, but, afterwards, didn't understand all of the hype associated with the total eclipse. Having seen both, I can say I understand that sentiment, but disagree. While the partial eclipse was cool, it probably wouldn't have been much to write home about. The total eclipse, however, was insane.

Around C2, everything started happening at once. The sky was rapidly getting dark, and we started seeing shadow bands on Anthony's sheet (not a guaranteed event, so it was awesome that we got to see it). As the last bit of the moon slid in front of the sun, we saw the "diamond ring" and "bailey's beads."

And then it was dark.

360 degree colored sunset.

In the middle of the afternoon.

Fireworks started shooting up from the baseball field adjacent to our viewing position (I told you this town was prepared) and everyone cheered as we entered totality. We heard all of the people gathered in the park on the opposite shore yell as well. We could see stars and planets in the sky, next to the sun. We stared, tried to take pictures, and laughed with joy. It was crazy.


Think about this for a minute. The moon and the sun are at perfect proportional distances from earth so that they appear, from our perspective on the surface, to be almost the exact same size in the sky, although the sun is roughly 400 times larger than the moon. This size alignment, along with their regular orbits in space, allows the moon to just barely totally eclipse the sun every so often, and creates this incredible phenomenon. It's almost like it was perfectly designed like this by Someone for our enjoyment.

Hiking out
By the time we got back to the parking lot, Spring City was pretty much gridlocked. People had arrived in waves over the previous few days, but as soon as C3 had passed, they were all trying to leave at the same time. If we waited in line to get out of the parking lot we were in, it was going to be a good while before we even got onto the main road. However, behind the parking lot was a back road that I was pretty sure would get us past the traffic and out of town, based on the bus rides we had taken earlier. The only problem was, it was over a sidewalk and through some grass. I tapped on Tanner's window (in his big Dodge truck) and said, "I'm going over the curb." He took a long look around and then said, "I'll follow you!"

Power Rangers
We were one of the first few people out of town and didn't hit any real traffic until we got to the interstate. At that point, we decided to take a detour around Knoxville (during what would have been rush hour as well), and stop at Chick-fil-a in Oak Ridge, Tennessee for dinner. Unfortunately, it was also Power Ranger night at this Chick-fil-a, so we joined the entire elementary school population of Oak Ridge for dinner, with a line wrapped out the door for a picture with the Power Rangers.

In contrast to our trip down, the trip back home took us roughly eight hours. The traffic on the interstate was insane, with solid lines of cars in both lanes for as far as the eye could see. The southbound lane, on the other hand, was completely deserted, in comparison. Every so often, traffic would slow to a crawl and then stop completely, for no reason in particular. This occurred even hundreds of miles away from the totality plane. However, whenever this happened, inevitably one of us (me a lot of time) would giggle a little bit, and then say, "Worth it!"

Ten out of ten, would total solar eclipse again.

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