Man at His Best

Eclipse Chasers Prepare for The Biggie

Tomorrow's eclipse (Malaysian time) will be the first for many Americans. A hardcore group of enthusiasts say: welcome to the club.

BY KATHARINE GAMMON | Aug 21, 2017 | Culture

On the morning of August 11, 1999, Kate Russo and her boyfriend were traveling on a bus from Belfast to Paris when they found themselves in the small French coastal village of Fécamp. A total solar eclipse was about to appear over Western Europe; Russo had heard a news report about the celestial event and decided to make a quick stop to check it out. As she and her partner walked from the bus station down to the beach, they came upon a huge crowd, with tens of thousands of people—a massive eclipse party. People gathered along the seafront and up against the town, listening to music, eating and drinking. They were there for the same reason as Russo: to watch and wait.

Russo, an Australian psychologist living in the U.K., knew what was about to happen: The moon would fully block the sun's light, casting the beach in darkness. But she wasn't prepared for the otherworldly sensations that washed over her as it unfolded. The wind picked up; the sand and the sea in front of her turned metallic; the temperature dropped as electricity filled the air, as if a tornado was about to hit. Goosebumps crept up Russo's arms and the hairs on the back of her neck pricked up. When darkness fell—the minutes during a total eclipse known as totality—the crowd began to clap and holler as they watched the sun's outer rays, the corona, shimmer and shine. The illumination of something typically invisible stunned Russo into silence. Unused to the trippy, upending experience, her brain first hit on a deep, primal fear, then activated the most intense joy and awe she'd ever felt. Once the beach returned to full daytime light, she hugged her partner tightly. "I need to see that again," she told him. "I need more."

Eighteen months later, after saving up USD3000 each, Russo and her partner stood on another beach, this time in the East African island of Madagascar. They'd spent the previous few days traveling with a small group of friends to reach their planned viewing spot, paddling up rivers in dugout canoes and camping with tribesmen along the way. The sky was cloudy, and Russo worried she wouldn't experience the euphoria she'd felt in France. Then, late in the afternoon, it happened again: The colors all around her changed, with hues of orange and purple dotting the horizon. Stars and planets twinkled. When the moon completely covered the sun and a crescendo of darkness rushed toward her, she felt that same ecstasy and let out a loud, long scream. From then on, Russo knew she would spend the rest of her life chasing eclipses around the Earth.


Russo stood on that Madagascar beach 18 years ago. Since then, she's traveled to view eight more total eclipses, from Australia in 2002 to Indonesia in 2016. It never gets old, she says. "Each eclipse is unique and different," she says. "You know what to expect, but each time is powerful."

Next week, Russo will add one more total solar eclipse to her tally—this time in the United States. On August 21, the first total solar eclipse to hit solely on U.S. soil since 1776 will drop a 70-mile-wide band of darkness across 14 states, starting off the coast of central Oregon and exiting through South Carolina. More than 12.2 million Americans live in the path of totality, and experts predict the event is likely to be the most photographed, captured and shared event in history. It's also the first in a cluster of seven eclipses to be visible from the continental U.S. over the next century; the next will fall over Mexico and the eastern U.S. in 2024.

Russo will watch Monday's eclipse from Teton Village, Wyoming, alongside other hardcore eclipse hunters she's met over the years. Via a 700-member listserv, a 3,300-member Facebook group, and various message boards, eclipse hunters—overwhelmingly men, and often in the sciences—compare their favorite camera gear, weigh the options of viewing from high plateaus versus coastal towns, and debate the time difference between watching from the dead center of the totality band versus a few dozen miles off-center (the center gives about nine extra seconds of darkness). On eclipse-chasers.com, founded by Jamaica-based amateur astronomer Bill Kramer, hunters log their time in totality down to the millisecond and study statistical maps of potential cloud cover over future eclipses.

Hunters have their communal particularities. Some prefer being on land; some rent cruise ships to position themselves near the path of totality; others hire planes to fly them through the path, to see more of the horizon and experience darker eclipsed skies. In the past ten years, a cottage travel industry has cropped up for chasers, who typically spend between USD5,000 and USD10,000 to get to their appointed viewing spot, with some luxury tours costing upward of USD30,000 per eclipse.

And it's all to see something that's a total fluke. Our moon's diameter is almost exactly 1/400th that of the sun's, while the sun is about 400 times farther away from the Earth than the moon—so they appear to be the same diameter in the sky. It's a complete coincidence, and it's one that won't last forever. In the distant future, the moon will travel farther away from the Earth, and will no longer cover the sun completely. We have half a billion years of this wonder left.


On a Thursday in July, I meet Jay Pasachoff, an astronomy professor at Williams College, outside Pasadena's ArtCenter College of Design. It's a few hours before the opening of "Eclipse," an exhibit he co-curated, featuring artifacts from eclipse expeditions dating back to the 1800s, alongside NASA projections and contemporary eclipse-related art. With more than 33 total and 67 partial eclipses under his belt, Pasachoff is the world's foremost chaser, a leading solar astronomy researcher, and a kind of guru for the chaser community, which looks to him for guidance on everything from the proper equipment to how to plan chasing trips.

Pasachoff is buzzing with excitement, nearly bouncing when I take his photo in front of a collection of oil paintings. His gray hair is neatly trimmed, and he's wearing a batik shirt he bought in Indonesia during the last total eclipse. The ArtCenter is packed for his opening lecture introducing the exhibit; I see a man wearing a concert-style T-shirt that lists all his eclipse sightings. People are perched on bureaus at the side, and the staff brings out more chairs—once, then twice.

In 1959, Pasachoff was a freshman at Harvard when his astronomy professor borrowed a Douglas DC-3 airplane from Northeast Airlines and took a dozen of his students to Marblehead, Massachusetts to fly through an eclipse path. Now, as a solar scientist, Pasachoff views eclipses as vital scientific opportunities to address lingering questions about the temperature of the corona and how magnetic fields can change its shape—information that can help protect astronauts against solar radiation in space. And thanks to his research, Pasachoff often gets to venture farther than other chasers: In Gabon in 2013, he calculated a path to reach the centerline of totality, but when he and his research team arrived, the group was warned not to travel to the centerline for fear of being trampled by elephants. In a videoof that eclipse, you can hear onlookers shouting and ululating during totality. Two years ago, in Svalbard (a group of islands between the North Pole and Norway), Pasachoff and his students were confined to an area within two kilometers of town because of the dangers of polar bears.

Like Pasachoff, many chasers caught the bug during childhood or adolescence. Joe Rao, a meteorologist in Westchester, New York, first saw a total eclipse in 1972, at age 16, after his grandfather announced that his own eclipse viewing in 1925 was the greatest experience of his life. The family piled into Rao's parents' beat-up Plymouth Fury and drove 800 miles north to Canada. "You never forget your first kiss, you never forget when you make love for the first time," Rao says. "And you never forget that first moment when you bask in the shadow of the moon."

A year after his first eclipse sighting, Rao met Glenn Schneider, also a teenaged eclipse enthusiast, at New York City's Hayden Planetarium. The two have now been friends for more than 40 years and have seen four eclipses together. Rao analyzes weather maps, while Schneider charts the path of totality and creates flight plans for aircraft looking to get into the eclipse path. Schneider is also an astronomer, but he doesn't chase eclipses for scientific pursuit, he says: He does it purely for the experience. His first eclipse "completely overwhelmed me," he says. "I'd read about it for years, but it kind of beats into your soul. When it was over, I was literally shaking. Those three minutes changed my life forever."

"This is life's greatest natural special event," says Noelle Filippenko, an interactive event designer and eclipse chaser who saw her first in 2001 in Zimbabwe (the same eclipse Russo watched from Madagascar). She watched the skies darken—setting off birds calling, gnats buzzing, and water buffalo returning to their homes—with about 130 other people. "You get this hour-long build up before totality," she says. "It's kind of like an orgasm, with the pent-up excitement for a long time leading up to it." She and her husband, Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko, got engaged at the 2005 eclipse in the South Pacific and gave their daughter the middle name Corona.

And it goes like this. Marriages, deaths, births, graduations, continents visited… for chasers, says Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astronomer who's seen 27 total eclipses, "the major events in your life are all reference-pointed by eclipses." Espenak met his wife at an eclipse in 1995 in India, when he loaned her a camera tripod; the couple quickly realized they had walked past each other at an eclipse gathering in Quebec almost twenty years before.


Monday afternoon, most Americans will be able to see a partial eclipse, but that's nothing compared to the real deal, chasers say. "You have to get into the path of totality," says eclipse-chasers.com founder Kramer. "It's like the eye of God suddenly looks down on you and says, 'What's up?'"

"I tell people to see the partial if that's all you can do," says Alex Filippenko. "But if there is any way you can make the trip to get into totality, do it." A partial eclipse doesn't offer the same atmospheric effects as totality—the changes in temperature, wind, barometric pressure, and the awe-inspiring visuals, like the Baily's beads effect, when sunlight shoots through the moon's crater-filled surface, eventually leaving a diamond-like sparkle at one side. This is what usually sets off uncontrollable reactions in viewers: goosebumps, tears, an adrenaline rush, screams or whimpers. "Some people start giggling, others start swearing," says Kramer. Others get meditatively quiet, says Noelle Filippenko.

Back at the exhibit, two of the astronomy-minded guests are standing beside a picture of an abstract painting of a total eclipse. Liz O'Mara (eight eclipses) and her boyfriend Tony Crocker (ten) will watch Monday's event from Jackson, Wyoming, and they've already planned their upcoming chases: Chile in 2019, Patagonia in 2020, and Western Australia in 2023. They book travel with a big group of eclipse-loving friends, planning out rental cars, condos and flights. The chasing community is "a coalescence of astronomy nerds and extreme travel people," says O'Mara.

Part of the allure, says Crocker, is that eclipses don't comply with our desire for immediate gratification. They only happen every 18 months, and they're short—anywhere from two to seven minutes long—leaving hunters wishing for more. "[You're] seeing something that is bigger than your little place on Earth," says O'Mara. "It's like a religious experience."

"No one can appreciate it until they see one," Espenak tells me. (At this point I've lost count of how many hunters have said this.) Like many chasers, the first time hit him hard: Espenak was on his hands and knees, weeping, after he witnessed his first eclipse in 1970. He had just gotten his driver's license, and convinced his parents to let him drive the family car 600 miles from New York to North Carolina to be in the path of totality. "You suddenly realize how wonderful this universe is and that we're a part of it," he says. "Seeing an eclipse puts us in our place."

Seasoned chasers like Espenak hope that next week's eclipse will capture the imagination and curiosity of today's American kids, launching the next generation of hunters. (To that end, many school districts within the path of totality are delaying the first day of school so kids can observe the eclipse.) That's one of the reasons why this particular eclipse could prove to be especially powerful. Science literacy is waning in the U.S., Espenak points out, and "the eclipse is going to be a great springboard for getting people interested in astronomy and science," he says. "[It'll be] a shot of scientific adrenaline to the American public," echoes Rao. "The biggest thing to hit America since the first launch of the space shuttle."

From: Esquire US


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