Don't get left in dark during rare solar eclipse

Prime viewing spots less than a day's drive from Santa Fe; team from NMSU to livestream 2-minute event for those who can't get away

Posted

The first total solar eclipse visible only from the United States– a spectacle that has not occurred since the country was founded – will cut a path from the Pacific Northwest to the southeast Atlantic Coast during the midday hours Aug. 21, transfixing millions of observers as the eerie cosmic shadow crosses 12 states.

New Mexico is not one of them.

Eclipse fanatics, amateur astronomers and those simply interested in the spectacle or the very rare need not grieve, however.

Only a few hundred miles separate the Land of Enchantment from the eclipse "totality" – that is, the path under which the moon briefly but completely and spectacularly obscures the sun.

A total solar eclipse hasn't been visible so near the state's borders in 99 years. And another isn't expected to come toward the Southwest until 2045.

There might never be a better time, in other words, for New Mexicans to visit central Wyoming or western Nebraska -- the nearest spots to see what will be the first total eclipse visible anywhere on mainland American soil since 1979 and the last until 2024.

"For the price of a tank of gas and a little food and to camp, you have got to go," said Polly White, the enthusiastic co-proprietor of the Santa Fe-based website greatamericaneclipse­.com. "Do it. You are actually standing in the shadow of the moon."

White and Michael Zeiler, a self-described "eclipse-chasing husband-and-wife team," launched the site five years ago. The webpage has become perhaps the leading resource for all things related to the upcoming eclipse, offering detailed maps, more solar eclipse statistics and history than one might imagine exists, essential travel recommendations and more.

What makes a total-eclipse-viewing locale, White said, is both the likelihood of clear skies and access to nearby interstate highways in case clouds do appear and would-be viewers have to hustle alongside throngs of people to find a clear spot elsewhere.

Her site identifies Casper, Wyo., as one of the 10 best places in the country for viewing the roughly 2-minute total eclipse. The town, at an elevation of 5,100 feet, is 670 miles from Santa Fe, making it one of the most reasonable destinations for New Mexico eclipse hunters. Total eclipse seekers interested in making the shortest drive possible might look to cornhusker country: The Sandhills region of Nebraska, some 600 miles from Santa Fe, is considered another top viewing area.

Traffic is a serious consideration in deciding where one might travel to witness the eclipse, White said. "You're going to have millions of people funneled into some pretty small roads. It's not a pretty picture if one yahoo runs out of gas and everybody's backed up," she said with a laugh. That might make North Platte, Neb., a 24,000-person town along four lanes of Interstate 80, a worthy candidate.

White, who's witnessed four total solar eclipses across the globe, recommends spreading out. "Anywhere from western Nebraska to central Oregon is going to be good" for viewers coming from New Mexico, she said.

But eclipse chasing is an inexact science, White and others said last week. Not only are weather patterns fickle, but accommodations, after years of anticipation, are scarce.

Casper, a city of 60,000, will host an event-filled Wyoming Eclipse Festival for days leading up to the eclipse. The visitors bureau there expects at least 30,000 people to descend on the town for the festivities.

Anna Wilcox, the director of the festival, said hotel rooms in the area were being booked three years ago. Other people in cities and towns along the totality path reached by phone last week also confirmed that the most devoted eclipse hunters are quick to snap up space.

The prices of some rooms that are still available, according to search engine results, are -- perhaps appropriate given the draw -- astronomical.

But others, Wilcox said, have been released and added back into the inventory as eclipse-chasers have changed plans or decided to watch elsewhere. She and others recommended searching for campsites on public land or for short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb and Craigslist.

White recommended arriving to camp at least a day before the eclipse with some food and perhaps extra gas. "You want to be as self-sufficient as possible," she said.

And, of course, one must wear eclipse glasses or use another form of solar filter; at any time other than the total eclipse, looking at the sun is dangerous and can result in eye damage or vision loss.

"But it's such a wonderful experience," White added, "because you really get to see the solar system in action."

Those who can't travel to witness the total eclipse will be cheered by the work of a New Mexico State University team that will launch a helium balloon equipped with a video camera from Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb.

Part of a nationwide NASA-sponsored project, the NMSU team will livestream footage of the eclipse at eclipse.stream.live.

Santa Fe, like the rest of the country outside the totality path, meanwhile, will experience a partial eclipse. The moon will cover roughly 80 percent of the sun at the peak of the region's eclipse around 11:45 a.m.

Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist and eclipse expert, described witnessing a partial eclipse, the sort Santa Fe will experience, as a 3 on a scale from 1 to 10.

A total solar eclipse, he said, "is a million."

Those who can travel to the eclipse path, whatever the challenges, will not come away disappointed, he said.

"It's the sort of thing you'll be telling your grandchildren about," Espenak said. "It is the most spectacular astronomical phenomenon you can see with the naked eye. Bar none."

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexi­can.com.

On the web

• greatamericaneclipse­.com

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment