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Rare opportunity in U.S. to see total eclipse

While solar eclipses occur roughly every 18 months, a total solar eclipse has not made landfall in the contiguous U.S. since 1979.

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published August 16, 2017

“For most people in the U.S., this is the first chance to observe a total solar eclipse in their lifetime.”
Gino Biondini, professor
Department of Mathematics

During a total solar eclipse, the sky grows dark, as if dusk were falling. Stars and planets emerge. The air cools and birds may go quiet. Insects and other critters of the night may come to life.

Astonishing as they are, however, such events occur roughly every 18 months as the moon moves between the Earth and the Sun.

So why all the hype about the one coming up on Aug. 21?

As a scientific phenomenon, “eclipses are not intriguing at all,” says cosmologist Dejan Stojkovic, a professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences.

He explains that whenever the Earth, moon and sun align to form a solar eclipse, the spectacle is visible somewhere on Earth. As the moon travels along in space, its shadow moves across the Earth’s surface, and areas that fall under the darkest shadow observe a total eclipse, while areas that lie under the partial shadow observe a partial eclipse.

The reason the Aug. 21 event is generating huge interest, at least in the United States, is because it will be viewable across the country — which is somewhat unusual, Stojkovic says.

The “path of totality” — which covers regions under complete shadow — varies from one eclipse to the next, and a total solar eclipse has not made landfall over the contiguous U.S. since 1979.

“For most people in the U.S., this is the first chance to observe a total solar eclipse in their lifetime,” says UB mathematician Gino Biondini, who earned his PhD in theoretical physics. “The path of totality will cross the whole continental U.S., including several major cities, and will affect millions of people.”

‘People will be able to see stars in the sky’

Biondini will be among those first-time eclipse observers. He will journey to Missouri with his twin 10-year-old boys to view the spectacle.

“In a total solar eclipse, the moon covers the sun completely,” he says. “When that happens, the sky goes completely dark, the temperature drops, and people will be able to see stars in the sky as if it were nighttime.”

This awe-inspiring display has captivated humanity throughout history.

“Our sun is directly related to all forms of life on Earth, so its disappearance, even for a few minutes, was historically associated with some dire predictions — like natural catastrophes, big wars, deaths of kings, etc.,” Stojkovic says.

“While this phenomenon is not mysterious at all from a scientific perspective,” he adds, “it is still very impressive to watch the power of nature at work — of course, with all the safety precautions.”

The view from Buffalo

Weather-permitting, Buffalonians should get a good look at the Aug. 21 eclipse, Stojkovic and Biondini say.

While Western New York does not lie exactly on the path of totality, the moon will block a good part of the sun in our area, enabling us to observe a partial eclipse.

If you’re eager to see more, however, you won’t have to wait long: In just a few years, on April 8, 2024, Buffalo will lie in the path of totality of another total solar eclipse.