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Into darkness: Local communities get ready for a total eclipse of the sun

Map of the total solar eclipse’s path across Missouri

The stars will align for 12 million people in 12 states, including Missouri, to witness something that hasn’t been seen in St. Louis since 1442 – a total solar eclipse of the sun.

The last U.S. total solar eclipse occurred on Feb. 26, 1979, but St. Louis was not in its direct path. On average, the event will last about 2 minutes, 40 seconds, but could last as long as four minutes in some locations. Though brief in duration, it has far-reaching consequences and is drawing attention from across the country and bringing millions of tourists to the area.


The tentative timeline

On Aug. 21, at around 1 p.m., local residents and visitors will be able to witness the Great American Solar Eclipse, also known as the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.

But, according to NASA, observing the sun during a solar eclipse with the naked eye is dangerous due to the risk of exposure to UV radiation and the development of “eclipse blindness” or burns to the eye’s retina. When viewing the eclipse, proper precautions should be taken.

“It’s a big deal, and because it’s a big deal, we know that schools and other organizations will want to watch it, so we want to promote safety,” explained Donald Ficken, chairman of the St. Louis Eclipse Task Force. “We’ve been doing a lot of awareness-building around this.”

The eclipse will showcase the track of the moon’s umbral shadow across Earth, resulting in its complete coverage, known as totality. Partial eclipses will take place before and after the total darkness.

The eclipse’s “Great American” moniker is due to its path from coast to coast across the United States without touching another country. While everyone in the U.S. will see at least a partial eclipse, the path of the total eclipse is through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and North and South Carolina.

Jim Twellman, a star ambassador with the Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri, demonstrates safe ways to view the eclipse.

For some, the 2.6 minutes of totality has been decades in the making.

“This will be my first total solar eclipse,” said Jim Twellman, a star ambassador with the Astronomical Society of Eastern Missouri [ASEM]. “I’ve been looking forward to it for 20 years, and have been preparing for it for the past three by gathering equipment and going to meetings.”

The eclipse will begin at 11:49 a.m. as the moon begins to move in front of the sun. The result will be a partial eclipse for about an hour while the sun and moon continue to align.

“If you were to put your fist out from your body and put the bottom of your fist against the horizon and count six fists up, it would be there,” Ficken said, describing the position of the sun in the late morning sky.

At about 1:16 p.m., the sun will be directly south, and the total solar eclipse will start. It’s estimated to last about 2 minutes, 40 seconds in many locations, with some places like De Soto, St. Clair and Festus due for longer times because of their closeness to the center of totality’s path. The eclipse will end before 3 p.m.

“At about 2:44 p.m. is when the sun will go back to normal,” Ficken said. “After the moon has moved, it will be a normal day.”

Missouri has about 3.4 million residents living directly in the path of totality, including West County. The city of St. Louis and downtown area are closer to the edge of totality’s path, and will not see the total eclipse.

The eclipse will occur when the moon moves into position between between the Earth and the sun, casting a shadow over the Earth and also resulting in increased visibility of planets, like Venus and Jupiter, and brighter stars. According to Twellman, the level of darkness in the path of totality will be that of a full moon.

A moment of totality during a total solar eclipse Aug. 11 1999, which was visible in parts of Europe, South Asia and the Middle East.

“Even if there’s a cloud cover, it will still get really dark,” Twellman said. “The amount of darkness on a clear day will be equivalent to that of a full moon at night. On a cloudy day, it’ll be like a full moon under a cloud.”

The temperature also could drop up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit and animals and insects also may behave as if nightfall has set in.


Where to go

For those living in West St. Louis and St. Charles counties, there are multiple local opportunities to view and celebrate the event.

TOTALITY MO 2017 will take place from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Aug. 21 at the Chesterfield Amphitheater. Tickets cost $25.

“It’s wide open, there are no trees, and it will basically happen from stage left to stage right directly over the amphitheater,” Shawn Tilstra, creator of TOTALITY, said. “It’s just a fantastic, guaranteed spot to see that.”

Each individual who buys a ticket will have access to free Solar Eclipse Glasses and a swag bag. Attendees also will be able to participate in the Tailgate and Experiential Zone, Food Truck Row, Micro Brew Village and Vendor Row.

Buying a ticket also guarantees concert admission for the band Eclipse, the “Ultimate Journey Tribute” band.

For those who simply want to enjoy the eclipse without any other festivities, the Chesterfield Valley Sports Complex will be open to the public and serve as a cost-free viewing area with no activities. Solar eclipse glasses and concessions will be available for onsite purchase.

Ellisville’s eclipse celebration takes place from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. in Bluebird Park and offers live music, free activities, food, T-shirts and free viewing glasses. According to Alderman Dan Duffy [District 3], participants will be able to watch the eclipse reflected on the bodies of water in the park. Watching reflected images rather than the actual eclipse also serves as a form of eye protection. The city also hopes to have projectors as a safe alternative.

“We’re used to working with large crowds in Bluebird Park, especially during the 4th of July celebration,” Duffy said. “Because of that, we think that we’re an ideal viewing location.”

Ellisville Alderman Dan Duffy [District 3] with Recreation Coordinator Sally Grobelny at the St. Louis Eclipse Expo on June 17.

Manchester’s eclipse celebration will take place from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and offer music and crafts for kids. Eclipse glasses will be on sale at the park office for $1 each, but the event is free.

In St. Charles County, the Parks Department is partnering with ASEM on a series of events called Total Eclipse in the Park.

Free events at Broemmelsiek Park in Defiance and Klondike Park in Augusta were “sold out,” and Quail Ridge Park in Wentzville had 500 spots left, as of June 29.

Each event is open to about 1,000 guests per park and each guest will receive a pair of eclipse glasses. A maximum of five tickets may be reserved per household, and reservations can be made online or by calling the St. Charles County Parks and Recreation Department.

“We’ve got the experts in our pocket, so it’ll be an astronomical opportunity,” Nancy Gomer, marketing coordinator for St. Charles County Parks, said. “We’re trying to accommodate as many people from St. Charles, and really as many people as possible, for this event.”

A comprehensive list of all Missouri municipalities within the eclipse path can be found at www.eclipse2017.org.

“A lot of people will be coming into St. Louis,” said John Weis, education specialist and NASA STEM educator professional. “There might be more than a million people coming into St. Louis alone.” In specific areas like St. Charles, 50,000 visitors are expected.

Weis said NASA is “planning to station a staff member to monitor the eclipse in Carbondale [Illinois].”

John Weis, education specialist and NASA STEM educator professional, presenting at the 2017 St. Louis Solar Eclipse Expo on June 17.


Viewing from home

To view the eclipse at home, there are a few preparations and safety precautions. Special viewing glasses or alternative pinhole projectors should be used, save for when the diamond-shaped bright spot totally disappears behind the moon. During an eclipse, UV rays can still damage retinal tissue and could result in permanent vision loss if directly stared at for a long enough time.

Pinhole projector for safe eclipse viewing

“I haven’t been around long enough to see the repercussions of a total eclipse, but I do see a lot of solar retinopathy, which is a retinal problem that can permanently damage your vision from looking at the sun,” Dr. Erin Sullivan, of the Missouri Optometric Association, said.

According to Sullivan, individuals should check that eclipse glasses are ISO-certified [International Organization for Standardization] before use. An ISO seal indicates that the glasses meet international safety measures for eye protection.

“I’ve seen a lot of my clients bring in glasses that aren’t ISO-certified and end up being counterfeits,” Sullivan said.

Eyes aren’t the only things that need protection during an eclipse. Camera and cell phone lenses can be damaged by the rays of the bright spot that appears during the partial eclipses before and after totality. Photo opportunities should be reserved for the moments when the sun is totally eclipsed, according to Fred Bruenjes, owner and chief engineer with DayStar Filters and founder of Moonglow Technologies.

“There are going to be hundreds or thousands of professional pictures taken,” Bruenjes said. “You won’t be missing anything if you decide to not take pictures.”


Future opportunity

For those who miss the eclipse, another opportunity is literally on the horizon.

The next opportunity to locally view a total solar eclipse will be April 2024. The projected path is south of St. Louis, traversing southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, Texas and parts of Central America. The path of the 2024 eclipse crosses the path of the 2017 eclipse, with an intersection located just south of Carbonale, Illinois, meaning it and cities like Cape Girardeau will experience two total solar eclipses within seven years.

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