Monday, August 21, 2017


So I woke up at 4am this morning and drove down to Molalla to watch today's solar eclipse in a minimall parking lot, between a 24 hour McDonalds and the local Safeway. I figured the scenery on the ground doesn't matter with eclipses, and a shorter drive there means a less tedious drive back, which turned out to be true. I missed the February 1979 eclipse here thanks to Oregon's usual February weather, which was quite disappointing since I'd basically memorized the big book of eclipses I'd been given a few months earlier. I could have bored you to tears talking about Saros cycles and Baily's beads and whatnot, and then I would've been sad that yet another grownup didn't share my enthusiasm. Anyway, I was fairly determined not to miss out this time. The one thing that didn't cooperate was my clunky old DSLR, which decided to somehow drain its battery down to zero on the drive down. So all I've got are phone photos, although several of them turned out ok. In truth, though, even the most perfect images from the world's most accomplished eclipse photographers don't really capture the experience. I think I may have said something similar about rocket launches a few years ago, and it's probably also true of auroras (though I haven't experienced that in person yet). If you ever have a chance to see a solar eclipse in person, you really should do it, and then you'll be able say this to other people. (Incidentally, today I wore my t-shirt from the last rocket launch I went to, because moon. Nobody asked me about it, because Oregon.)

The photoset includes a few photos from totality; none of them are going to make the cover of National Geographic anytime soon, but I would've felt bad if I hadn't at least tried. Molalla had just over a minute of totality, so there was just enough time to marvel at it, scramble to take a few photos, marvel at it again, and hurry to put the eclipse glasses back on to avoid going blind. If I could do today over again, I might have gone somewhere further south with longer totality, since a minute-and-change was not nearly long enough. Since I don't get a do-over on this one, I suppose I'll just have to go travel the world and see more eclipses.

Also included are a whole bunch of partial phase photos, since the partial phase seems fascinating until you see the total phase, and then you realize it's very much a secondary attraction. The parking lot had rows of leafy generic parking lot trees, so I got a few decent photos of the bizarre crescent shadows you see during the partial phase, created by images of the crescent sun peeking between the leaves. These were much stranger than I'd expected, and I felt compelled to point them out to people nearby & explain what was going on. I suppose once you've worked in a science museum, you never really and truly stop, even if it was 20 years ago.

There's also a short video of shadow bands racing across the parking lot just before totality. As far as I know this phenomenon is still not entirely explained; it's thought that it's an atmospheric effect, since it's different each time and sometimes isn't observed at all. I only saw it prior to the eclipse and not afterward, though I only looked for it briefly as people began driving home the moment totality ended and I didn't want to be roadkill before I could even tweet any photos out. Oh, and toward the bottom of this post there's also a video of the goofy animated cowboy outside McDonalds, at the intersection of state highways 211 & 213, which exists because Molalla is an old-timey rootin' tootin' Western rodeo town & don't you forget it.

A few things I didn't see, or saw but didn't manage to capture here:

  • I'd meant to look for the four planets clustered around the sun, including Mercury, which I don't think I've ever seen. I was too busy looking at the sun to remember to look for planets, so maybe next time.
  • Prior to the eclipse there were the usual little brown birds hanging around, chirping and looking for discarded fries or bits of McNugget. (Note: I am not a birdwatcher.) They seemed to get quieter as the eclipse approached, but I don't really recall whether I heard any during totality or not.
  • I also didn't look at the horizon; you're supposed to get a brief 360 degree sunset effect, but again I was too busy looking at the sun to notice.
  • Also no photos of Baily's beads or the diamond ring effect, because those are very brief phenomena and I just didn't time it right. This probably requires more eclipse photo experience, and possibly better (and more cooperative) gear than I had today.
  • I do have photos of the parking lot & crowds watching the eclipse, but these don't capture the strange light during the partial phase, I suppose because the camera wants to auto correct for the low light situation. It's not like during a sunset. There's no golden hour, and no long shadows. Things just get progressively dimmer and greyer, until the great sky monster finally eats the sun, and civilization collapses. I was going to say the effect is like the dimness from a distant forest fire, but that's not really true either, since it's also not hazy at all. It's more like an underexposed photo happening in real life, which is more or less what's actually going on.
  • The temperature dropped significantly on the runup to totality, and I put on a hoodie for a while. If you really want the full effect, I suppose you could simulate this by cranking up your AC while looking at these photos. This was the only weather effect I noticed, no sudden wind or absence of wind.

One more thing -- for comparison, at the bottom of this post I've embedded a photo I took of the transit of Venus back in 2012, which I unfortunately took with a crappy Blackberry camera. The transit had just begun so the planet's near the edge of the sun, toward the bottom of the photo. Transits of Venus are less impressive than solar eclipses, but much, much rarer, and I feel fortunate to have seen one. I dusted off my old sun-watching glasses from 2012 today to use as a phone camera filter. So keep those glasses around, kids: The next solar eclipse is in July 2019 in Argentina & Chile (assuming the winter weather cooperates), and then in November of the same year there's a transit of Mercury visible in the same region. (Those aren't quite as rare as transits of Venus, but I've never seen one.) The next eclipse in North America isn't until April 2024, and it makes a diagonal stripe from Texas up across the Great Lakes and over to Newfoundland. So that might be an excuse to go back to Cleveland, or maybe watch the eclipse at Niagara Falls, again assuming the weather cooperates.

howdy pardner

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