The solar eclipse is here! - WNEM TV 5

The solar eclipse is here!

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Millions of Americans looked up to the sky Monday for the first total eclipse to sweep the country in nearly a century.

Only a narrow band of the United States saw the moon completely block the sun.

Every astronomer in the country will tell you to enjoy this rare opportunity. No matter what superstitions you've heard, there is no risk to your health due to simply being outside during a total solar eclipse.

But there's one thing you shouldn't do, and that's look at the sun with your naked eye.

Don't do it. Really.

The only time you can look at the sun with your naked eye is A) if you're in the path of totality, where the sun will be completely covered by the moon, and B) during those two minutes or less when the sun is completely covered.

During those brief and geographically constrained moments, the brightness of the sun is reduced to that of a full moon, which can be viewed safely without anything over your eyes.

Otherwise, any glimpse of the sun's brightness is not only uncomfortable, it's dangerous.

What happens if you ignore the warnings?

Your face won't melt off, "Raiders of the Lost Ark"-style, but your eyes could be severely damaged. And, yes, you could go blind.

Looking directly at the powerful brightness of the sun can cause damage to the retina, the light-sensitive part of the eye.

"When you look directly at the sun, the intensity of the light and the focus of the light is so great on the retina that it can cook it," said Dr. Christopher Quinn, president of the American Optometric Association. "If the exposure is great enough, that can and will lead to permanent reduction in vision and even blindness."

The retina may translate light into an electrical impulse that the brain understands, but one thing it can't translate to your brain is pain. So even if you're excited about the eclipse and think one brief glimpse at the sun before it completely hides behind the moon is worth it -- it's not. There's no internal trigger that is going to let you know that you've looked at the sun for too long. Any amount of looking at it is too long.

Even the smallest amount of exposure can cause blurry vision or temporary blindness. The problem is, you won't know whether it's temporary.

"It's really impossible for people, when they're in the moment, to make a judgment over brief versus prolonged exposure," Quinn said. "It's never a good idea to view the eclipse without the protection."

Why you need eclipse glasses

No matter how cute or fancy they may be, wearing your favorite pair of sunglasses -- or a whole stack of sunglasses, for any MacGyver wannabes out there -- won't help. You'll need eclipse glasses, which are regulated by an international safety standard. They're cheap and widely available, and some libraries are even providing them free.

Whether you use the cardboard eclipse glasses or a handheld card with a single rectangular view, the most important feature is the filter.

"Filters that meet the ISO 12312-2 standard reduce the sun's brightness to a safe and comfortable level, like that of a full moon, and block harmful ultraviolet and infrared radiation as well," said Rick Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society. "Solar filters that meet this standard are about 100,000 times darker than ordinary sunglasses, and sunglasses don't block infrared radiation."

Unsafe eclipse glasses bearing the ISO logo and certification label have been flooding the market, according the astronomical society. Websites are also displaying false results that claim to show positive test results for glasses they sell.

"The only way you can be sure your solar viewer is safe is to verify that it comes from a reputable manufacturer or one of their authorized dealers," the society said in a recent release. The organization has a list it keeps updated.

To test for safety, the only thing you can see through a safe solar filter is the sun itself. If you look through and the sun is too bright, out of focus or surrounded by a murky haze, or if you can see things like ordinary household lights, the glasses aren't safe.

If you're tempted to reuse eclipse glasses that are three years or older, they were made before the international safety standard was in place and come with a warning that says you can't look through them for more than three minutes at a time. These should be discarded, according to the astronomical society.

Eclipse glasses can be worn over regular eyeglasses, as well.

Viewing safety

If you plan on watching the eclipse through a camera, a telescope or binoculars, buy a solar filter to place on the end of the lens. But do not wear eclipse glasses while looking through any of these.

"The concentrated light from the optics will go right through the filters on the eclipse glasses and cause severe injury to the eye," Fienberg said.

Binoculars do enable you to have an up-close view of the wonders of the eclipse, Fienberg said. Cheap solar filters are available to place on the binoculars, and you may remove them during totality, when the sun is completely blocked from view.

"During totality, the sun is ringed by this spectacular pearly white corona, a beautiful crown around the jet-black silhouette of the moon, with loops and streamers tracing the sun's magnetic field and extending for several solar diameters in every direction," Fienberg said.

Want to go old school and look through welding filters? Make sure they are Shade 12, 13 or 14 -- although some people say Shade 12 leaves the sun too bright and Shade 14 makes the sun too dim, which leaves only the hard-to-find Shade 13 as the Goldilocks filter. Know that most welders' helmets that might be lying around in garages probably won't have those filters.

Here are safety tips to remember, according to the American Astronomical Society:

  • Always inspect your solar filter before use; if it's scratched, punctured, torn or otherwise damaged, discard it. Read and follow any instructions printed on or packaged with the filter.
  • Always supervise children using solar filters.
  • If you normally wear eyeglasses, keep them on. Put your eclipse glasses on over them, or hold your handheld viewer in front of them.
  • Stand still and cover your eyes with your eclipse glasses or solar viewer before looking up at the bright sun. After looking at the sun, turn away and remove your filter; do not remove it while looking at the sun.
  • Do not look at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars or other optical device.
  • Similarly, do not look at the sun through a camera, a telescope, binoculars or any other optical device while using your eclipse glasses or handheld solar viewer; the concentrated solar rays could damage the filter and enter your eyes, causing serious injury.
  • Seek expert advice from an astronomer before using a solar filter with a camera, telescope, binoculars or any other optical device; note that solar filters must be attached to the front of any telescope, binoculars, camera lens or other optics.
  • If you are inside the path of totality, remove your solar filter only when the moon completely covers the sun's bright face and it suddenly gets quite dark. Experience totality and then, as soon as the bright sun begins to reappear, replace your solar viewer to look at the remaining partial phases.
  • Outside the path of totality, you must always use a safe solar filter to view the sun directly.

How can kids watch?

Keep an eye on children and make sure they keep their glasses on at all times, perhaps helping to hold the glasses in place.

There are lots of ways to get your kids involved in the eclipse and all it has to offer. They can create their own "pinhole projection" by crossing the outstretched fingers of one hand over the other during the partial eclipse and enjoying the crescent suns that shine through the waffle-like pattern.

"One thing that always gets kids excited at a solar eclipse is to have them look at the shadow of a leafy tree during the partial phases," Fienberg said. "They'll see lots of little crescent suns projected on the ground by the tiny spaces between the leaves."

One thing that people don't need to worry about is shielding their pets from the eclipse. While animals may exhibit strange behavior during the eclipse, they know better -- better than humans, anyway -- than to look up.

Here are some of the things you should know about the total solar eclipse happening August 21.

Don't miss it! This is rare, says NASA

"The hair on the back of your neck is going to stand up, and you are going to feel different things as the eclipse reaches totality. It's been described as peaceful, spiritual, exhilarating, shocking," said Brian Carlstrom, deputy associate director of the National Park Service Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate.

According to NASA, experiencing a total solar eclipse where you live happens about once in 375 years. So, unless modern medicine advances considerably in the next few years, you might not make it to the next one.

The last time anyone in the United States witnessed a total solar eclipse was almost 40 years ago, on February 26, 1979. It's been even longer -- 99 years -- since a total solar eclipse crossed the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The total eclipse on June 8, 1918, passed from Washington to Florida.

You can set your clock to it, even to the precise second.

Make your plans now. If you are reading this at work and want to ask for the day off, you will soon find that all of your science geek colleagues have already asked off for this random Monday in August. If you can't manage to convey to your boss that no one else will be doing business and you can't get the day off, block out your calendar for an outdoor meeting or a long lunch

Even if you live in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago or Atlanta, you will go slightly dark. In fact, all of North America will be able to see a partial eclipse.

Do you have to be in 'totality'?

To see "totality," in which the moon completely blocks the sun, you will need to be inside the narrow swath -- about 70 miles wide -- of the moon's shadow. The path will stretch from the Oregon coast to the South Carolina coast, with 12 states in between.

Nearly 12.2 million Americans live in the path of totality, but NASA predicts that millions more will visit it that day. "About 200 million people (a little less than 2⁄3 the nation's population) live within one day's drive of the path of this total eclipse," the agency said.

"This will be like Woodstock 200 times over -- but across the whole country," said Alex Young, solar scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Federal Highway Administration is calling this a "planned special event for which there has been no recent precedent in the United States."

It expects heavy traffic before and after the eclipse along the path of totality. The agency suggests getting to your chosen spot hours before, if not the day before. The one thing you don't want to do is come up short of totality.

"This is one of those rare events where being close is not good enough," said J. Kelly Beatty, senior editor of Sky & Telescope. "A sun that's 99% covered is vastly different than the one that's 100% covered. Like I say to people, it's like being on a first date versus being on your wedding night."

Most astronomers have the same advice: Get to the path of totality, because you won't want to miss this.

"I know it's a Monday and for some parts of the country a school day, and it may be inconvenient or cost more than you want, but it really should be a priority," said David Baron, author of the book "American Eclipse." "The general impression is, if you live somewhere with a 90% partial eclipse, that's good enough. Absolutely not. It's only during a total solar eclipse that you can take off your eclipse glasses, look up where the sun should be with your naked eye and see a sky you've never seen before."

A fast-moving shadow

During a total solar eclipse, the moon and the sun both appear to be about the same size from the ground. According to NASA, this is a "celestial coincidence," as the sun is about 400 times wider than the moon and about 400 times farther away.

Then, it is just basic geometry. When the Earth, moon and sun line up just right, the moon blocks the sun's entire surface, creating the total eclipse.

If you happened to be sitting on the moon facing Earth, it would look just like the moon is casting a dark circular shadow -- called the umbra -- on the Earth. This shadow will move across the United States from west to east, but don't think about trying to keep up with it.

Unless you are flying a fighter jet, you won't be able to follow the shadow, which will be traveling at almost 3,000 miles per hour when it enters the US and then slow to nearly 1,500 mph when it traverses South Carolina.

A larger and fainter shadow called the penumbra will surround the inner shadow. This is what most people will experience -- the partial eclipse.

Precision timing

The lunar shadow first crosses the West Coast at 9:05 a.m. PDT.

People in Lincoln City, Oregon, will be the first in the continental United States to see the total solar eclipse, beginning at 10:15 a.m. PDT.

A total solar eclipse can sometimes take as long as 7½ minutes. The longest eclipse duration for this event will occur in Carbondale, Illinois, and will clock in at two minutes, 43 seconds, beginning at 1:20 p.m. CDT.

Eventually, all good things must come to an end, and the lunar shadow will depart the East Coast at 4:09 p.m. EDT.

This will be the last total solar eclipse in the United States until April 4, 2024.

It's not quite as long of a wait as you might have thought, but it won't stretch the width of the country. Instead, it will move from Mexico to Maine and then traverse New Brunswick and Newfoundland.

For another eclipse similar to this year's, one that moves from coast to coast, you will have to wait until August 12, 2045.

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