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Total eclipse of the sun
A total solar eclipse will be visible in most of South Carolina on Aug. 21, 2017. One of the last effects visible in the moments before totality, when the moon completely blocks the sun, is called the "diamond ring." A single point of sunlight will shine through one of the valleys on the edge of the moon. At the end of totality, the diamond-ring effect may appear on the opposite side of the moon.
Photo by Rick Fienberg / TravelQuest International / Wilderness Travel
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A bonus of the eclipse is that stars and planets not normally seen in our night sky this time of year will be visible. Terry Richardson, a physics and astronomy professor at the College of Charleston, created this star chart as a guide to celestial bodies that can be seen. It depicts the sky at 2:43 EDT Aug. 21, as if you are near the center of South Carolina, on the center line of the eclipse, facing southwest. “Venus will be really brilliant—there won’t be any problem picking that out, even before totality,” Richardson says. Jupiter will be about half as bright as Venus, he says. Try to locate Sirius, the star closest to the horizon, below and to the right of the eclipsed sun. It and the sun are the two closest stars visible to us in the Northern Hemisphere without a telescope.
Chart illustration by Terry Richardson
A day is coming–soon–when the sky will go dark in the middle of an August afternoon; the sun will disappear completely. The air around you will cool, and chirping birds will go silent.
Don’t be alarmed; it’s temporary, and all will return to normal shortly. But while it’s happening, pay attention, because it’s a rarity. On Monday, Aug. 21, South Carolina will experience the first total solar eclipse it’s seen since 1970. That last one passed through only the lower part of the state. The one before that was in 1900, bisecting the upper half of the state.
This time, the shadow of the eclipse will cut a 70-mile-wide path right through the center of South Carolina, traveling from the northwest tip and exiting the state after passing over Charleston.
“It’s probably the most spectacular natural event that most people will ever see in their lives,” says Greg Cornwell, planetarium specialist at Roper Mountain Science Center in Greenville.
And then the bottom falls out
Aug. 21 will dawn just like any other summer day—without clouds, eclipse watchers hope. You won’t notice anything special until early afternoon. Even when the partial eclipse starts a little after 1 p.m., only people wearing special eclipse glasses will be able to see the moon take its first small bite out of the sun. (You’re going to want those eclipse glasses; see How to protect your eyes.)
Change comes gradually in this first phase, as the moon crosses in front of the sun and blocks more and more of its light, says Matthew Whitehouse, observatory manager at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia.
“But as you get deeper into that, it does start to slowly get a little darker,” he says. “Shadows start to become more defined. And then the bottom falls out with the total eclipse starting.”
A little after 2:30, communities in the upper corner of the state—looking at you, Walhalla—will be the first South Carolinians plunged into the darkness of the total solar eclipse for up to about two-and-a-half minutes. From the Upstate, the eclipse shadow races across the state at more than 1,000 mph, practically tracing I-26 into the Lowcountry before heading out to sea.
The Palmetto State is in prime position to witness this cosmic event, being one of only 12 states in the eclipse’s path of totality—that’s the 70-mile-wide swath where the moon’s shadow crosses Earth and turns daylight to darkness. With three metropolitan areas in totality and several major interstates providing ease of travel across the state, South Carolina could host an estimated 1 million astronomers, eclipse chasers and curious tourists who will travel from all over the world for this event.
Who’s in, who’s out?
Not every part of South Carolina falls within the path of totality. If you’re outside that path, the most you’ll see is a partial eclipse.
Of the most populous cities in the state, Greenville, Columbia and Charleston are well inside the path of totality and will see one to two minutes of full darkness in the middle of the day. But Spartanburg, Florence and Myrtle Beach miss the cut.
Walhalla, along with most of the northwest tip of the state, is safely in. Landrum, at the upper edge of Spartanburg County—out.
Edgefield? In. Aiken? Just out. Pawley’s Island? In. Next-door neighbor Litchfield Beach? Out.
Both position and timing are critical for viewing totality—it doesn’t last that long, and the closer you are to the center of the path where the moon’s shadow is moving, the more viewing time you get. The longest stretch of totality in South Carolina will be visible in Central, for 2 minutes, 38 seconds. That’s because it’s so close to the center of the path. Around the edges of the shadow, totality times can be a good bit shorter. In Monarch Mill in Union County and White Oak in Fairfield County—communities just on the upper edge of the totality path—viewing time will be only 22 seconds.
In the state’s metropolitan areas, Columbia gets 2 minutes, 30 seconds; Greenville gets 2 minutes, 10 seconds; and Charleston gets 1 minute, 33 seconds.
When does it start? Again, that depends on where you are. The uppermost areas of South Carolina will see the beginnings of the partial eclipse shortly after 1 p.m. Totality will begin around 2:36 p.m.
In the Midlands, look for the partial eclipse to start around 1:13 p.m., with totality beginning around 2:41 p.m. In Charleston, the partial phase arrives around 1:16 p.m.; totality starts around 2:46 p.m.
Wondering if your community is in the path of totality and when you need to be outside to see the eclipse? The website eclipse2017.org has compiled lists of every community in the path and when those places can expect totality to start.
What’s the big deal?
“Experts say that this could be the most-watched eclipse in the history of the world as we know it,” Whitehouse says. For most people, he adds, the chance to see a total solar eclipse comes once in a lifetime, if that.
Getting a clear description of what it’s like to view a total solar eclipse is tough, because those who’ve been there say you can’t understand unless you’ve experienced it. They struggle to find a never-quite-right adjective: Jaw-dropping. Eerie. Knee-buckling. Spine-tingling. Life-changing.
“For some people, it’s very emotional,” says Cornwell, who witnessed the 1991 total eclipse in Hawaii. “You see things, and because it’s so different from anything you’ve ever seen, you really just kind of feel it deep down inside.”
Jack Dunn of Columbia, an amateur astronomer and retired planetarium director, was in Georgia for the 1970 eclipse. He remembers the light changing slowly at first, the shadow moving in faster as totality approached.
But the highlights, he says, are that swift drop into darkness, “the environmental change of suddenly going into night,” and then seeing the sun’s corona glowing around the dark disk of the moon.
“The corona is that edge of the sun that normally we can never see, except during a total eclipse,” Cornwell says. The bright, wispy ring “extends millions of miles out into space,” he says, “almost like a crown that goes all around the sun.”
And there’s more:
- Planets and stars that aren’t normally visible during the day, or at this time of year, will stand out in the sky during totality. Find Venus, the brightest object visible during the eclipse, then Jupiter, nearly as bright, on the opposite side of the sun.
- Experienced eclipse watchers rave about an effect called the “360-degree sunset” that makes the entire sky appear as if the sun were setting along the horizon, in every direction, in the final moments before totality.
- Animals that take their cues from light will react to the sudden darkness as if night has arrived. Birds go quiet; nocturnal animals may emerge and be active; roosters may crow when the sun shines again, as if it’s a new dawn.
- A welcome change for August in South Carolina will be the air temperature dropping a few degrees while the moon is blocking the sun.
Dunn is troubled by folks who say they’ll just stay indoors and watch the eclipse live-streamed on the internet.
“No, don’t do that,” Dunn says. “No, it’s not the same. You can watch the videos later.”
Even if the worst happens—a cloudy day—go outside to get the total eclipse experience, he says. “It’s a free show that’s put on by the universe, and it’s coming to us.”
Learn more about the August 2017 total solar eclipse, safe viewing tips, the science behind eclipses, and planned events and activities at these websites. Some of these sites also have links to purchase eclipse glasses:
NASA’s 2017 eclipse website: eclipse2017.nasa.gov
S.C. communities in the path of totality: eclipse2017.org/2017/states/SC.htm
Details, maps and graphics about the Aug. 21 eclipse: GreatAmericanEclipse.com
Eye safety tips from American Astronomical Society: eclipse.aas.org/eye-safety/safe-viewing
Hammock Coast: ultimatespf.com
Roper Mountain Science Center Eclipse Extravaganza, Greenville: ropermountain.org
Ruth Patrick Science Education Center, Aiken: rpsec.usca.edu/Events/Eclipse/SolarEclipse2017.html
How to protect your eyes – Proper eye protection is critical for safely viewing partial and total solar eclipses. Use these tips to protect your vision.
The geometry of an eclipse – See how the positions of the sun, moon and earth create shadows that give us a partial or total solar eclipse.
By the numbers: The Great Solar Eclipse – A total solar eclipse is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Take a look at the numbers that make the 2017 eclipse special.
Eclipse tips – First time viewing an eclipse? Get some advice about how to make the most of it.
How long will I be in the dark? – Find out what time the eclipse starts in your community and how to position yourself for the longest viewing times.