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The path to totality

Watch your eyes when watching the eclipse

It’s the middle of the day, but the birds are roosting in the trees. Everything gets colder and darker, as if night has come early. Strangely shaped shadows and lights are cast across the earth. But it’s not the Apocalypse — it’s just the effects of the unearthly solar eclipse.

Scott Fisher, a professor of astronomy at University of Oregon, says the eclipse we’ll see in Oregon is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a fascinating phenomenon. 

“It turns out we have solar eclipses about once a year somewhere on Earth, but it’s really rare to happen where you are,” he says, adding that the last eclipse to occur in Oregon happened in 1979. “It literally is a little 3-minute night.”

Fisher says the eclipse is “this rare alignment where the moon comes directly between the sun and the Earth,” casting a shadow 70 miles wide. “The shadow is going to go completely across the United States.”

The eclipse will be visible to some degree across the entire U.S., but the path of totality — the 70-mile wide band in which the entire sun will be obscured by the moon — passes through 14 states, according to NASA.

Eugene barely misses the band of totality. “Here in Eugene 99.1 percent of the sun will be covered,” Fisher says. The special effects of an eclipse, like confused birds, dropped temperature, the beautiful and rarely visible corona of the sun only occur in the band of totality, which lands north of Eugene. Corvallis, Albany and Salem are within the path here in the valley, while Redmond, Madras and Mitchell will catch totality east of the cascades. 

Many towns in the path are already reporting fully booked hotels and campsites.

Astronomers and space geeks are already planning where they’ll be. Fisher says he’ll be in Madras on Aug. 21, the day of the eclipse, to seek out guaranteed clear skies. “Here in the valley the estimates are 75 or 80 percent chance [of clear skies], and over the mountains it’s more like 90 percent. So all the astronomy nuts I know are going across the mountains.”

He’s also planning on arriving two days early to avoid traffic. Fisher expects that I-5 will be a parking lot, and that “people will just pull off on the side of the road and look up.” It’s important to plan ahead for traffic and lodging, he warns. 

 “The current estimate is that we will have between 800,000 and a million visitors that weekend in Oregon.” 

Perhaps the most important detail of all is safety. Staring directly into the sun can cause blindness in the blink of an eye. “The sun is really bright. Brightest thing in the sky by a factor of a million or more,” Fisher says.

 In our eyes, he adds, “the retina are the cells that actually react to light. And much like if you took an air horn and blew it in your ear, the sunlight is so bright it basically burns your retina up. That’s irreversible.”

No fear, however. There are excellent options to safely view the eclipse. The UO physics department is already handing out small cardboard eclipse viewers, which diminish light by 99 percent. 

Fisher says many stores around town are likely to stock them shortly before Aug. 21, but if you’re not one to take chances you can order them yourself from websites like rainbowsymphonystore.com. 

You can also look at an image of the eclipse using a pinhole camera made out of a shoebox. Once the sun is totally obscured, Fisher says, it’s safe to observe it without protection.

If you’re planning on photographing the eclipse, Fisher says “never ever look through a telescope at the sun, don’t use a camera lens to look at the sun. Anything that magnifies is bad.” 

It’s possible to buy a certified solar filter for your camera, but keep in mind that products made for the naked eye may not fully protect the retina if the sun is being magnified.

Those here in Eugene should try to get up to the path of totality, Fisher says. “It’s an emotional, powerful thing to see and I urge everyone to try to see it.” 

“Astronomy is deeply embedded in our lives, but we don’t think about it anymore. We get up and go to bed because the sun rises and sets, we measure our age by how many times we’ve gone around the sun.”

The solar eclipse in Oregon takes place on Aug. 21, and will begin its partial phase at 9:04 am. The phase of totality will begin at 10:16 am on the coast, and will last around two minutes.