10 rookie mistakes first-time eclipse-chasers make (and how to avoid them) (Image Credit: Space.com)
Unless you’ve been living under a space rock for the last few months, you’ll know that a total solar eclipse is coming soon to North America. On Monday, April 8, 2024, it will be possible to experience totality from parts of north-western Mexico, 15 U.S. states, and five Canadian provinces. During totality, the moon will block the sun’s light and heat for a few minutes, causing darkness in the day and a rare chance to see the solar corona with the naked eye.
However, a total solar eclipse is a dynamic event that can be complicated to understand. For example, totality is only on the menu for those within a narrow path stretching across North America. It’s only 115 miles wide. Everyone else in North America will see an under-whelming partial solar eclipse. But it also matters where you are within the path of totality. Then there’s the weather forecast, too, because clear skies are essential to view the sun’s corona during totality (though it will get dark wherever the weather).
Experiencing a total solar eclipse doesn’t require any scientific knowledge, but it does require some planning and decision-making. Here are some common mistakes would-be eclipse-chasers make.
1. Trying to increase a partial eclipse
Millions made amateur mistakes during the last total solar eclipse to cross the U.S. on Aug. 21, 2017. NASA and the University of Michigan’s report on that eclipse reveals that a jaw-dropping 19.8 million Americans traveled to view the eclipse “to increase the level of totality observed.” There is no level of totality – like there’s only one level of pregnancy – and under a third of those people traveled into the path of totality. That means about 13 million Americans messed it up. “If you’re going from 45% to 75% because you think you’ll get a better view, it’s a useless waste of your time”” said David Makepeace, a Canada-based filmmaker and eclipse-chaser who makes inspirational documentaries on EclipseGuy.com, in an interview with Space.com. “We need a ‘100% or die’ campaign!”
2. Booking an event in the ‘wrong’ place
Thousands of events are planned for spectators for this eclipse, but not all are taking place in the path of totality. For example, Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, Canada (99.02% partial solar eclipse) has astronomy lectures, while the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Arkansas (99.4% partial solar eclipse%) is planning festivities. Unless you’re using these events as a base to drive into the path of totality, they are entirely pointless. Get the exact address of any event and check the precise location using this interactive Google Map of the eclipse. If it’s not between the red lines, you must be somewhere else on April 8.
3. Obsessing about the wrong things
You must be in the path of totality to experience anything approaching spectacular, but you don’t need to be on the centreline of the path. Sure, being on the line maximizes the duration of totality, but that’s not the most important thing. Be in the path of totality, but more importantly, be where clear skies are forecasted. So be it if that means changing your location at the last minute.
4. Leaving home unnecessarily
If you live in the path of totality — as over 40 million do in North America — you are among the luckiest people ever. Most eclipse-chasers would give their right arm for such a privilege. So even if your home is not bang on the centerline, enjoy your celestial good fortune.
“Invite your friends over and experience totality in your backyard,” said Dr. Tyler Nordgren, an Ithaca, New York-based astronomer and eclipse artist at Space Art Travel Bureau, in an interview with Space.com. He thinks that part of the appeal of a total solar eclipse is a feeling of connection and joy. “Dealing with the traffic and the stress of trying to rush from one place to another to get just a minute more totality ruins the joy and awe — so just stay home,” he said.
5. Not getting to your observation site early enough
If you’ve got yourself organized and booked somewhere to stay close to your intended observation site, don’t get cocky. On April 8, millions will get up exceptionally early and drive to their observation site in the path of totality. Unless you also get up early, they will arrive before you, and you could lose out despite your initial brilliant planning.
6. Shouting at clouds and getting upset
You’ve arrived at your destination. The weather is clear, but with minutes to go until totality, some clouds roll in and block your view. There’s nothing you can do about it now, so take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy the bizarre experience of the moon’s shadow enveloping you in darkness in the middle of the day. Cherish it and be thankful that the sun and the moon are the same apparent size in the sky while you exist — because it won’t always be that way. Then check the time and location for the next eclipse (hint: Aug. 12, 2026, in Greenland, Iceland and Spain).
7. Forgetting to bring binoculars
Only one sight in nature beats the view of the solar corona with the naked eye during totality — the same view through a pair of the best binoculars. You’ll see looping pink prominences around the moon and an enormous amount of detailed texture in the sun’s jaw-dropping corona. Top tip: the image-stabilized Canon 10x42L IS WP binoculars give an incredible view. For totality, you won’t need solar filters on the objective lenses, but if you want to use them to look at the partial phases, then you will absolutely will need solar filters.
8. Fussing with a camera during totality
If you are a photographer, it will be tough to resist capturing totality, but if you do, be sure to go the extra mile and automate the entire process. Smartphone users should take a quick photo as totality begins (remember to turn off the flash) and then put it away. Better still, rig up a smartphone behind you to take a video to extract a still from later. An image of you in silhouette watching the eclipse is by far the most exciting image you could ever take at a solar eclipse. Close-ups of totality are tricky and rarely impress, so are best left to professionals.
9. Underestimating post-eclipse traffic
Thousands plan to drive from Austin or San Antonio into the Texas Hill Country on April 8 for the eclipse, and then back again. That’s just one pinch point of many, according to GreatAmericanEclipse.com‘s latest visitation data. After all, cities close to — or just a few hours drive from — the path include New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toronto.
The queues will be long after the eclipse if 2017 is anything to go by, probably longer; 32 million live in the path of totality in the U.S. this time compared to 12 million in 2017. No wonder many eclipse organizers, notably Rochester in New York, recommend that everyone #TakeTuesdayToo.
10. Rushing away immediately after totality
All that buildup, and then you leave as soon as it’s finished? A total solar eclipse is the peak of a three-hour event, during which the moon slowly covers the sun and eclipses it. After totality, it goes into reverse, gradually uncovering the sun.
Since a partial solar eclipse is a relatively rare event in any one place, it surely deserves an hour of your time. As well as being an excellent way to decompress after the intensity of totality, watching the partial phase after totality is a no-brainer. After all, the alternative is probably to sit in traffic.