Seeing the solar eclipse doesn’t have to, shouldn’t be expensive

On August 21, the entire North American continent is going to be treated to an amazing spectacle as the moon slowly moves between the Earth and the Sun. Starting in the mid-Pacific ocean, the center of the moon’s shadow will trek across the US from Oregon to South Carolina as it retires in the mid-Atlantic. As the hype grows, so do the calls for people to spend a lot of money on travel and paying premium fees to book rooms and space in the 70-mile wide zone of totality.

Mostly this is bad advice unless there is a reason you need bragging rights to the absolute best location. Remember, the eclipse is the show and it will last around 3 hours from the first circular void in the sun’s disk to the last. The “total” portion of the eclipse is anywhere from a second to about 3 minutes with most places experiencing around 2. Only people in the 70-mile zone of totality where the dark umbral cone of the moon’s shadow travels will see the sun completely darken, and then for three minutes or less.

At this point, any passing cloud can ruin your view. Imagine having paid a fortune thinking you will be getting the view of a lifetime and then a cloud parks itself in front of the sun and all that expense for “premium locations” would have been wasted. Your experience would have been the same as someone who just stayed home, an intense partial eclipse.

Also, keep in mind that the region that will experience totality is thousands of miles long and over two thousand of that is over land. The band is also 70 miles wide, which means as long as you stand in a region over 150,000 square miles, roughly the size of Montana or over two and a half times the size of Georgia, you will experience some amount of totality as long as you have clear skies.

So what’s the best way to plan to see the eclipse?

  1. Determine if you care about seeing totality. If you aren’t, all of Georgia will experience at least 85% coverage and everything from Macon North will have 96% plus. Close enough unless you obsess over that 2 minutes of totality.
  2. Check the weather and head for a place that has 100% chance of sunny skies. If the weather report says afternoon showers (for us in the East) or partly cloudy/sunny, stay away. Under a blanket of overcast or cumulous clouds, your expensive resort might just resort in a few minutes of dark gloom.
  3. Don’t pay premium prices unless you would pay for whatever you are getting on a day without an eclipse. It’s just not worth it. You have an area the size of Montana to park your car and see the eclipse. This can be a back road in the country, a parking lot or just a grassy gnoll. Any place that you can see the sun, you can see the eclipse. Forests are a bad idea, but any other place under the sun is a good one to see the total eclipse, as long as it is in the 70-mile band. For the partial, take note of where you are now and if you can see the sun, you are golden.
  4. If you travel, don’t insist upon being in the zone. Instead, find a place outside and save some money. On the day of the eclipse, check the weather map and then find a place away from the big city where you can park your car and watch it. You have 3 hours of partial eclipse show and a couple of minutes in the middle to see the total eclipse. Take a picnic lunch and sit in the grass somewhere.
  5. Don’t get caught up in the hype and feel that you have to send money.

The best thing you can do is to be weather wise. I am a long time amateur astronomy and even started my education in astrophysics. Clouds are the bane of any astronomer and always expect them whenever there is a major astronomical event. Don’t spend a fortune on a place you can’t abandon if the weather turns bad. The money you save will make the memory that much better.

Eclipse Macon November 3 2013
One of the last eclipses to be seen from Macon. This one was just a couple of minutes long as the sun rose in the East, taken by the Hartley Bridge Rd. overpass of I-75. The tiny partial eclipse can be seen in the lower left hand corner of the sun as it rises. Macon was about the furthest West any portion of the eclipse could be seen as it proceeded to the East across the Atlantic Ocean where it eventually tuned first into n annular eclipse, then a total eclipse. Photo by Doug Deal.