It’s hot in Charleston, S.C., but not just because of the weather. It’s also hot because Charleston is the last U.S. city to experience the celestial spectacle of today’s total solar eclipse traversing a 112-kilometer-wide swath that stretches from the nation’s northwestern to southeastern coasts. As a pilot told a Jet Blue flight about to land in the city of 150,000 yesterday morning, “You’re going to the hot zone.”
In that zone on Sunday, scientists with the College of Charleston (CofC) busily engaged in fine-tuning eclipse science and tracking projects and educational activities about the event. Crews from NASA finished constructing a national eclipse broadcasting headquarters on the college campus. About 100 NASA scientists, technicians, and communications experts have descended on the Charleston area for the eclipse.
Jon Hakkila, associate dean of the CofC Graduate School and a professor of physics and astronomy, said that a total solar eclipse has a scientific and artistic aspect to it and is the kind of thing that will have a strong impact on people who watch it, whether or not they are interested in science. “Those moments in your life when something happens that’s extraordinary are events that suddenly make you see things in a completely different way,” said Hakkila. “This is going to be one of those events for a lot of people.”
He became interested in astronomy and physics after watching a 1972 total solar eclipse on Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula, camping near a zoo at which the lions suddenly began roaring and elephants trumpeting during totality. Hakkila presents a talk about the eclipse, with scale models, at the college’s convocation assembly marking the beginning of its school year this morning, hours before the eclipse.
Path of Totality
Today’s total solar eclipse briefly darkens the sky above 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina. The “path of totality,” in which the Moon’s shadow briefly and totally blots out the disk of the Sun, passes directly above the homes of more than 12 million people and lies within an hour’s drive of 200 million people. Millions more will experience a partial eclipse.
Cities and towns along the path have been making eager or anxious preparations to handle the hordes of visitors, some for the past decade. Yesterday there were warnings of increased traffic on highways outside of Denver, Colo., and other places on or near the totality path.
Last-Minute Outreach and Instrument Checks
Other CofC scientists as well as college students were putting finishing touches Sunday on tethered high-altitude balloons to observe the eclipse with attached instruments and conduct experiments as part of NASA’s Space Grant Ballooning Project. The project involves 55 balloon teams in 30 states, including four in the Charleston area. Cassandra Runyon, a CofC geology professor and state director for NASA’s Space Grant Consortium, is coleading the college’s ballooning team.
On Sunday morning, she and more than a dozen other scientists, teachers, and students—from the college, the city’s Stall High School, and the Inter American University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón Campus—crowded into room 202 in the college’s science and mathematics building for last-minute equipment checks to ensure that everything functions smoothly on Monday. Runyon said the project is student-driven and that “the coolest thing for me is watching these students learn. We’re seeing lightbulbs turn on.”
Runyon, however, wishes that more lightbulbs would turn on among some of the general public. She told Eos that she has fielded complaints from people who said that the timing of the eclipse—on what would otherwise be a school day here—is a nuisance, and they asked whether the eclipse could be rescheduled to some other date.
Getting Others Excited About the Eclipse
CofC students involved in raising public understanding and awareness about the eclipse said they have handled tricky questions from children about whether the Sun could explode during the eclipse and whether their hamsters and other pets might behave weirdly during the celestial event.
Joseph Snyder, a CofC senior with a double major in physics and astrophysics, called the run-up to observing the eclipse and his involvement with public education about it highlights of his college career. He finds it rewarding “to get other people excited about the stuff I was excited about when I was their age,” Snyder said.
Marlena Kolesinska, a CofC sophomore studying physics and astrophysics who also is involved with the public outreach activities, said that the eclipse “is a great reminder that there is something out there that is beyond our control and bigger than us and that it’s an amazing natural spectacle that we are lucky enough to be able to observe.”
A Busy Time
Months of planning have gone into “making this event as enjoyable as we possibly could” for the city’s residents and for possibly 50,000 or more visitors, Mark Wilbert, Charleston’s emergency management director, told Eos. He worries, however, about traffic congestion in the city, particularly for day-trippers driving out of town tonight.
Nobody knows how many people are arriving in the city at the last minute. Michael Poupore, bell captain at the historic Francis Marion Hotel in downtown Charleston, said all lodgings in the region appear to be booked and that his hotel could have sold 3 times as many rooms if it had had the availability.
The calendar for Charleston has dozens of eclipse-related activities, including a CofC eclipse-viewing event, a kayak tour, beach and bar parties, and museum special events aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier and elsewhere. At the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston on Sunday, Michael Zebrowski, an artist on the faculty at Johnson State College in Vermont, was busy setting up and calibrating a telescope and other instruments for his art installation entitled Eclipse Survey.
The Benefits to Science from the Eclipse
Prior to a minor league baseball game this afternoon at Charleston’s River Dog Stadium, Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and others are giving talks about the eclipse and viewing it with thousands of others at the stadium. Hertz, a big baseball fan who volunteered to be at the stadium for the eclipse, will also throw out the first pitch of the game.
Hertz said the eclipse provides a unique opportunity to further our understanding of the Sun and its impact on space weather here on Earth. He said it also offers an opportunity to showcase science and demonstrate the validity of scientific understanding, giving scientists a chance, for instance, to “draw a connection [for others] between our ability to predict things like the total solar eclipse and our ability to predict things like weather or climate.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer, in Charleston, S.C.