On Monday, millions of folks using mobile phones and digital cameras will document what has been dubbed “the Great American Eclipse” and rapidly post snaps of the sun’s corona peeking from behind the moon on Instagram and Facebook.
The anticipated deluge of social media will doubtless benefit those unable to see the spectacle first hand. But make no mistake, eclipse veterans say photos do not compare to the splendour of truly standing in the moon’s shadow.
Jeff Rosenheim, a photo curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who dusted off the Langenheim images to celebrate the occasion, offers simple words of advice: Don’t let selfies spoil the magic moment.
“We live in a world of media replacing direct experience… It would be nice to have a takeaway from the experience, but I also hope that people actually have the experience,” Rosenheim told Al Jazeera.
Total solar eclipses are not rare and occur, on average, every 18 months. Many can only be seen from remote oceans, deserts and icy wastes; Monday’s event is remarkable because it cuts right across the world’s third most populous nation.
Viewers can watch the moon’s shadow in 14 states, starting at 10:16am near Lincoln Beach, Oregon, and then race across mountains, woods and prairies to reach McClellanville, South Carolina, 93 minutes later at 2:49pm (local times).
More than 200 million people live within a one-day drive of the path of totality, the 110km-wide tract along which the sun is wholly obscured except for the ghostly glow of its corona, driving talk of the most viewed eclipse in history.
According to Guy Brandenburg, 67, a retired teacher from Washington DC, it is worth the trip. He is heading to Lander, Wyoming, to watch his third eclipse through a home-made telescope, and raves about the “most amazing natural phenomenon”.
Veterans talk of temperatures dropping and breezes as sunset-like hues cross a sky that deepens into a twilight blue. Stars brighten and planets come into view as animals and birds behave strangely, like at dusk.
“You’ve seen photos and videos. None of them, not a single one, does justice to how incredibly beautiful the spectacle is,” Brandenburg told Al Jazeera. “You can see things you’ve read about, like the corona and the chromosphere, that are directly related to our very being.”
All of North America will experience a partial eclipse, though Brandenburg warns anybody outside the zone of totality will not see the sun’s corona. Even a 99 percent obscuration comes a distant second to the marvel of a full eclipse.
Even so, office workers in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere will likely stretch their legs to see a partially covered sun. Their 20-minute breaks will add up to some $694m in lost productivity, estimated the hiring firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Viewers are advised to wear special sunglasses to avoid eye damage from the sun’s rays. Thousand Oaks Optical, an Arizona-based supplier, has sold enough filters this year to produce some 100 million pairs of shades. Experts also warn of defective knockoffs flooding the market.
There are few secrets about eclipses. NASA, the US space agency, has catalogued five millennia of data covering the dates and durations of every eclipse from 1999BC to 3000AD. The results are available on its website.
Eclipse-chasers have thus had years to prepare, studying weather charts to predict cloud-free viewing spots. The West is best, apparently, with many folks bound for inland Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Nebraska to dodge any rainclouds further east.
But there is no perfect strategy. Wildfires are already burning in Oregon and tinder-dry vegetation vulnerable to fire across the Western region threatens to bring smoky skies, sudden road closures and shuttered campsites.