Path to Totality

An Eclipse summary by one of our fantastic locals, Mark...

TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE SUN, AUGUST 21st, 2017

In a lifetime, having the opportunity to observe a total eclipse of the Sun provides an opportunity few people share.  The eclipse just past, visible from the vicinity of Salem, Oregon, offered just such an opportunity.    I had the chance to view it from the Coelho Vineyard near Amity, just west of Salem.  Fortunately, the day broke sunny and warm; crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky.  Surrounded by roughly a hundred other viewers, I set up at about 9:00 a.m., a Mimosa in one hand, a doughnut in the other—all courtesy of Coelho Winery.  On schedule, at about 9:15, sharp-eyed observers noticed the leading edge of the Moon taking its first tiny bite out of the Sun’s disk at the 1 o’clock position.

For the first thirty minutes or so, except for the inexorable progression of the Moon heading toward 7 o’clock on the Sun, little else was noticeable.  Then, gradually, I perceived two things:  the light had dimmed somewhat, and the temperature had dropped by perhaps five degrees or so.  The temperature drop was also accompanied by a very gentle west-to-east breeze.  The progression of the eclipse continued steadily towards totality until, at just minutes after 10 a.m. the edge of the Moon crept right up to the edge of the Sun at the 7o’clock position, producing an effect known as “Baily”s Beads.”  This phenomenon occurs during about the last thirty seconds before totality, the result of the rough edge of the Moon—marked by both mountains and valleys—that causes the last remnants of sunlight to stream differentially toward the Earth.  As the sunlight is broken up by the irregular lunar surface, gaps appear in that stream of light.  Almost immediately after, the so-called “diamond ring” appears when the last vestiges of sunlight appear as a bright, brilliant point resembling nothing so much as a luminous diamond.  An instant later, totality begins and solar eclipse sunglasses come off.

The first seconds of totality were almost other-worldly.  At first there were gasps and cheers from all those sharing the moment, and for good reason.  Then, at the instant totality began, the corona—a pearlescent glow produced by the Sun’s highly ionized surrounding atmosphere—literally exploded into view all around the Sun.  Brilliant, fragile in its appearance, indescribably white, and totally invisible at all other times, the corona extended in all directions from the now-eclipsed Sun, which looked like nothing so much as a black hole in the blue-black sky.  All around, our horizon resembled the sky just after sunset.  Against the backdrop of the blue-black sky I saw Venus shining brilliantly almost directly overhead.  Here and there in the sky bright stars could be seen.  For the next two minutes I and everyone else on sight sat in awe-inspired silence.  Then, as abruptly as it had begun, totality ended, first with the reappearance of the “diamond ring” effect, then “Baily’s Beads,” then the brilliantly luminous edge of the Sun.  Solar eclipse glasses back on, more cheers, a buzz of excitement from all present, marveling at what we had just seen.

More than a thousand years ago, ancient humans, on witnessing an eclipse, thought the Sun was being devoured by a dragon or some other voracious creature. They would shout, beat drums, wave their arms to chase the terrible beast away.  Today, we all stand in awed silence, ever mindful that each of us has just seen one of the most beautiful phenomena in all of nature.  For that matter, one of the most beautiful things a person could ever hope to see.