The Great American Eclipse: Complete Guide

For the first time in 99 years, America will experience a total eclipse spanning from coast to coast. Those in the path of totality, a 70 mile wide strip stretching from Oregon to South Carolina, will be plunged into 2 to 3 minutes of total darkness. The sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, which is usually blocked by the brightness of its surface, will briefly become visible allowing a rare glimpse into the workings of our nearest star. But, even outside the path of totality, people will still see the awe inspiring site of the moon’s shadow darkening the sky.


Several features are available online that can show you exactly how much you can expect to see and when.

Cloud cover can spoil your view of the eclipse. This infrared satellite image from the National Weather service will give you a good idea of whether clouds might hamper your view.

National Weather Service Infrared Satellite forecast Aug. 21, 2017

Viewing the Eclipse

We can’t stress this enough, looking directly at the eclipse is dangerous. Do not do it. Special glasses are required to view the eclipse safely. Sunglasses will not work. Several retail vendors including WalMart, Lowe’s, Kroger and Best Buy stock them, according to a list compiled by NASA. They have sold out many places, so you might call ahead first.

If you can’t see the eclipse in person, all the major TV networks will be airing live coverage. But, NASA TV is going all out with four hours of coverage including views from weather balloons, NASA research aircraft and live reports across the country beginning at noon ET. You can watch here.

Why Does an Eclipse Occur?

An eclipse occurs when the orbits of the earth and the moon around the sun align in such a way that the moon blocks out the sun. It happens regularly, every 18 months or so, but often over water — which covers most of the earth after all. It is more rare to see an eclipse over land.

How Eclipses work

According to NASA: “When the moon does eclipse the sun, it produces two types of shadows on Earth. The umbral shadow is the relatively small in diameter point on Earth where an observer would see a total eclipse. The penumbral shadow is the much larger area on Earth where an observer will see a partial eclipse. Here, the sun is not completely covered by the moon.”

The rarity of eclipses is related to the fact that the moon orbits in a slightly different plane to the earth’s. The moon’s orbit tilts five degrees relative to the earths. Most of the time, the moon’s shadow points away from the earth. So, only once in a while do the orbits happen to align in such a way that an eclipse can occur.

A Magnificent Free Show

The experience of an eclipse is truly odd. Animals may behave strangely. Crickets will begin chirping. Birds will sing their bedtime songs, and newspapers will write stories full of tortured eclipse metaphors. As a 1925 article in The New York Times put it, a total eclipse is “the most magnificent free show nature presents to man.”

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