Friday 19 April 2024

The Total Solar Eclipse of April 8, 2024

The author and the eclipse on April 8, 2024

The millions of people who saw a total solar eclipse for the first time on April 8, 2024, now know about the power and magnificence of this celestial spectacle.

The April eclipse was the second of two total solar eclipses that were visible in North America in recent years, the first being the eclipse of August 21, 2017, that crossed the United States. Those two eclipses ended a long draught of total solar eclipses in North America that began in February, 1979. Both once seemed part of a distant future. Now eclipse chasers will have to travel to other parts of the world if they don’t want to wait for the next eclipse in North America, which won’t happen until 2044.

I saw the 1979 eclipse in Manitoba and the 2017 eclipse in Oregon, and I have written about them elsewhere in this blog. After 2017, I faced a difficult decision: where should I go to see the 2024 eclipse? The decision wasn’t simple because of the path of this eclipse and the fact that April weather is more problematical than the August weather we dealt with in 2017.

The narrow path of this year’s total eclipse first touched land in Mexico near Mazatlan and headed northeast through the U.S. starting in Texas and across several states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Vermont and Maine. The eclipse’s path also included parts of Canada, including parts of southern Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Totality passed south of Toronto but was visible in parts of Montreal and in other centres such as Hamilton, Kingston, Sherbrooke, Fredericton and Gander. Most of the rest of the continent got a partial solar eclipse.

The weather on April 8 was more likely to be favourable in Mexico and Texas than elsewhere. Hotel bookings and transportation in those areas would be expensive and complicated. The odds of good weather in the Canadian portion of the eclipse on April 8 were less than 50-50. Each of the past few years on April 8, I checked the weather along the eclipse path, and most years in Canada it was cloudy.

In part because of the pandemic, I didn’t make arrangements for the eclipse years in advance as I had done for the 2017 eclipse. As 2024 dawned, I concluded it was too late to arrange a trip to Mexico or Texas for a reasonable price. I know many people in Toronto, but I felt that too many people chasing the eclipse in Hamilton and points south might complicate things. So I decided to go to Windsor, Ontario, just outside the path of totality. We have relatives there, and it would be relatively easy to cross the border there to chase the eclipse in Ohio if necessary. But it was still a big gamble, and I made sure I had other things to do to justify the trip.

I didn’t get carried away with long range forecasts for eclipse day since I had already made my plans. About a week before the eclipse, I began to see social media posts from my friend Alan Dyer, who has literally written the book on photographing solar eclipses. For this master of astrophotography, failure was not an option when it came to choosing a suitable place to see and photograph the 2024 eclipse. Setting out from his home in Alberta, Alan found that contrary to expectations, the weather in Texas was not promising. He decided to drive in the general direction of eastern Canada.

As the eclipse day got closer, weather predictions called for clouds in southern Ontario, and when I arrived in Toronto on April 4, I was greeted with cold, cloudy and rainy weather. Alan drove on to Quebec, where prospects for clear skies looked better. Two days before the eclipse as I made my way to Windsor, the skies cleared. Things were looking more promising, but clouds were still predicted for April 8.

The night before, the prediction was still more promising for Ohio than the Windsor area, and Ohio locations were closer to the centreline of the eclipse, which promised a longer period of totality. I prepared to cross the border.

April 8 dawned in Windsor with blue skies. The forecast still called for clouds in the mid afternoon, when the eclipse was due to take place. The forecasts for Ohio called for longer periods of cloudiness in the afternoon, which I feared meant thicker clouds, and so I decided to stay in Canada.

Accompanied by my wife, along with her sister and her husband, we drove south from Windsor through Amherstberg into the path of totality. Many eclipse chasers in the area were already arriving in Point Pelee Park, which was closer to the centreline but involved very limited access, so I thought we might set up in Leamington. Before we got there, we found a great spot to watch the eclipse at Colchester Harbour and Beach. The Windsor Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) had set up tents and telescopes there, a restaurant, coffee shop and other facilities were nearby, and scores of people were already settling in to watch the eclipse over Lake Erie.

Looking south across Lake Erie, we saw a bank of clouds that everyone hoped would stay where it was. But true to the prediction, the clouds moved our way and covered the sun as the partial phase of the eclipse began a little before 1 p.m. Fortunately, the clouds weren’t very thick and we could follow the Moon as it covered the face of the Sun, a view assisted by our eclipse glasses or the filtered ‘eclipse telescope’ I brought along.

A half hour ahead of totality, the temperature in the area began to noticeably cool. I recall the temperature reduction in the 2017 eclipse cooling closer to the time of totality, but that was in the warmer weather of August.

Finally, at about 3:12 p.m., totality began. We were amongst the first to see totality that day from Canadian soil. The transition from needing eclipse glasses to full totality with the naked eye seemed to be prolonged to me, but finally we got our 90 seconds of totality and dark skies. Venus was plainly visible through the thin layer of cloud, but I don’t recall seeing Jupiter or any other celestial object. The incandescent but not overpowering glow of the Sun’s corona took centre stage. No photo has ever done justice to that sight.

In the moments leading into and out of totality, the lighting of the area took on a strange hue. During totality, my viewpoint overlooking Lake Erie allowed me to see the approaching “sunset” to the west and the receding “sunrise” to the east. During this time, I took a couple of photos of the sun and of the light effects around the horizon with my iPhone, and I set up my iPad to film totality. I wanted to spend most of totality enjoying the view rather than spending a lot of time messing with cameras.

All too soon, totality was over, and soon people started to leave. We remained for most of the rest of the eclipse to savour the incredible spectacle. By the time we drove back to Windsor, all the clouds had disappeared. So had the crowds, and as a result we encountered no traffic jams.

The hours and days that followed seemed to be a giant debrief on this event. Who got a good view of the eclipse? Who got skunked by the weather? Those were the major topics of conversation with everyone I met. The evening of April 8 I attended a meeting of the Victoria Centre of the RASC on Zoom, and a few days later I attended a meeting of the RASC Mississauga Centre in person, both full of eclipse talk.

To sum things up, those in or near Mazatlan, some on cruise ships, enjoyed clear views, and the weather in Texas was not great but allowed brief glimpses of the Moon blocking the Sun. Most people who saw the eclipse from both the north and south sides of Lake Erie got a good view of the eclipse through thin clouds. Those who viewed the eclipse from Niagara Falls and eastern Ontario had to deal with thicker clouds, which meant fleeting views of totality or no view at all. The weather was better in Montreal, and those in Sherbrooke and the surrounding area enjoyed clear skies. I heard reports of good weather in New Brunswick and not so good weather in Newfoundland. Alan Dyer got his photos. Only a few people I know missed all of totality.

So the viewing conditions for the 2024 total solar eclipse turned out to be less than perfect but better than most of us could hope for. My friends who had never seen a total solar eclipse were most impressed by the sight. Many found that the eclipse stirred their emotions.

Many astronomical events don’t impress non-astronomers, and that is even truer today when some events such as “Supermoons” are overhyped by people in the media or on the internet. But total solar eclipses never fail to impress, as they should, since they are so rare and so amazing.

Now the question arises - when is the next one? August 12, 2026, in Greenland, Iceland and Spain. In North America, the wait will go on until August 23, 2044. How long will my wait go on? That's a decision for another time.

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