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Breaking down everything you need to know about the April 8 Solar Eclipse

Cue the Bonnie Tyler hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart”: parts of the U.S. experienced their own total solar eclipse on April 8. Skywatchers across the globe traveled to Ohio and various other states to be treated to a celestial spectacle as a solar eclipse graced our skies. Thousands of people traveled to parts of Ohio that were in the path of totality to catch a glimpse of this phenomenon and according to OHIO Astronomy Assistant Tom O’Grady, “this rare event may even be the most observed eclipse in American history.”

On the latest Ask the Experts podcast, O’Grady, George Eberts and Doug Clowe sit down to discuss everything people should know about the eclipse and share their own experiences and plans. 

What is a Solar Eclipse?

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon comes between the Earth and the sun, blocking the sun's light and casting a shadow on Earth. Although eclipses occur regularly whether they are total, partial or annular about every 18 months, the upcoming total eclipse happening over North America will not be seen again until 2099, when it ironically will pass directly over Athens, OH. 

What makes this eclipse so special is how rare it is to have totality in the United States, especially in the state of Ohio. The last time Ohio had totality was in 1806 with what is known as “Tecumseh’s Eclipse.” Normally, total eclipses occur at the North and South Pole and only slightly cross the middle of the globe. 

“We’ve known about orbits since the 16th century to predict eclipses in terms of the moon’s orbit around the earth and the earth’s orbit around the sun,” Clowe, a professor of astrophysics and director of the Astrophysical Institute, explained. “We have eclipses pretty well figured out for the next 200 to 300 years based on tracking orbits and we know exactly where they will be and when. You can go online to various NASA websites and find dates and times of when eclipses will occur. You can even see the tracks of totality far in advance.”

According to Eberts, an astronomy assistant who has been studying this alongside O’Grady for over 40 years, we can also go back thousands of years in the past to see when eclipses occurred and where their path of totality was. 

Although being in the path of totality really gives viewers a grandiose show that all three experts explain as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, there are still ways to catch an eclipse outside of those areas.

A partial solar eclipse, which is what will be seen in Athens, OH, is where only a portion of the sun is covered by the moon, resulting in a crescent-shaped sun. 

An annular solar eclipse is where the moon appears smaller than the sun, leaving a ring of sunlight visible around the edges.

Both types of eclipses are more common to see and still offer an out of this world experience. 

How Does It Occur?

Solar eclipses occur due to the alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth. The moon's orbit around Earth is tilted relative to Earth's orbit around the sun. When these orbits align just right, the moon's shadow falls on Earth, causing an eclipse.

How to watch the eclipse safely

While solar eclipses are fascinating to observe, it's crucial to view them safely to protect your eyes from harmful solar radiation. 

“The human eye is not designed to look at the sun, it’s too much light,” Clowe explained. “If you stare directly at the sun it will cause damage to the back of your eye and even staring indirectly at it can cause damage. The real danger during an eclipse is that when the moon starts covering the sun, it doesn’t look as bright, however, the brightness is still as strong it’s just not as big. Even at 2% visibility, it is bright enough to burn the back of your eye.”

The following are some options the experts suggested to safely view the eclipse:

Use Certified Solar Filters: Always use eclipse glasses or handheld solar viewers that meet the safety standard. Regular sunglasses or homemade filters are not safe for viewing an eclipse.

Projection Method: If you don't have certified glasses, you can still enjoy the eclipse by creating a simple pinhole projector. Punch a small hole in a piece of cardboard and hold it up to the Sun, projecting the image onto a second piece of cardboard, white sheet or the ground.

Watch Online: If you prefer not to venture outside or don't have the necessary equipment, many observatories and space agencies will livestream the eclipse, allowing you to enjoy the event safely from the comfort of your home.

Clowe also adds that there is no harm in using your phone or camera to take photos of the event, however, it is a spectacle that sometimes can be left up to enjoying without technology, noting that professional photographers and videographers will be able to capture the event much better than the average phone. 

The entire eclipse can last a few hours with the moon moving to cover the sun, but a total eclipse only lasts a few minutes. During those few minutes, Eberts and O’Grady encourage people to not only use protective actions but to notice what’s going on around you as well. They say to stand under trees and watch the myriad of crescent shapes of the sun fall through the leaves.

“Take notice of the tongues of fire, or prominences, that people can see around the edge of the sun, as well as look for other planets and bright stars that are out during the daytime that we don’t normally see,” Eberts said.

Where and when to watch

The April 8 total solar eclipse will be most visible along a narrow path of totality that crosses North America from southwest to northeast. The path of totality will begin in Mexico, pass through parts of the United States, and end in eastern Canada.

In the United States, the path of totality will pass through states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Major cities in or near the path of totality include Durango, Mexico; Austin and Dallas, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio; and Buffalo and Rochester, New York.

Areas outside the path of totality, such as Athens, OH, will experience a partial solar eclipse, where the moon covers only a portion of the sun's disk. The extent of the partial eclipse will vary depending on the observer's location, with those closer to the path of totality seeing a larger portion of the sun covered.

“For people going to view the eclipse in a path of totality, be prepared for traffic and crowds because people will come to Ohio from every continent to see this,” O’Grady said. “Eclipses were some of the early scientific expeditions that people sought out. Astronomers would travel across the seas to see the shadow show up. The only difference now is that it’s everyday people traveling from all over because they are figuring out how unique and different it is. Plus, this eclipse, specifically, is being marketed like never before.” 

Members of the OHIO community can take part in events to watch the eclipse on our Athens campus, as well as on several regional campuses.

This article was originally published on April 4, 2024. Last updated May 10, 2024.

April 4, 2024
Samantha Pelham