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Utah gets to ‘connect with the universe’ during this weekend’s annular eclipse

Anticipation is mounting for Oct. 14’s annular eclipse that will grace Utah skies. The astronomical occurrence is expected to draw astronomical crowds. So much so, that the Utah Department of Transportation is advising drivers to expect heavy traffic.

Word is out that the celestial wonder is awe-inspiring and not to be missed. Research from the University of Michigan found a record number of people viewed the total eclipse in 2017, and there has been an uptick in interest in related science as a result.

NASA said the eclipse will be used as a way to test and prepare scientific equipment for the total solar eclipse in April 2024. The space agency will also launch sounding rockets during the eclipse to study changes in the atmosphere.

Traffic sign warning of delays due to eclipse.
Elaine Clark

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, the American Academy of Ophthalmology is reminding eclipse watchers that approved eyewear is essential for viewing the annular eclipse, and the American Astronomical Society has vetted manufacturers of solar viewers and has put together a list of them.

Eyeball safety aside, there is the raw human experience of viewing a solar eclipse. Colorado-based science journalist David Baron knows that well.

He is an eclipse chaser and author of the book American Eclipse. Baron said the annular eclipse is an important scientific event, but it’s also interesting from a human standpoint.

“A lot of people think of eclipses as a really spiritual experience. You find yourself in the presence of much larger forces, and you realize that you are a tiny speck in this vast, incomprehensible universe.”

The Oct. 14 annular eclipse is not total like the one that occurred in 2017, but it will still be spectacular.

“What you’re left with at the peak of this kind of eclipse is the sun transformed into a thin, bright ring in the sky. The word ring in Latin is annulus, and that’s why this is called an annular eclipse. Some people call it a ‘ring of fire eclipse’ and that’s a much more vivid description.”

Map illustrating path of an eclipse on October 14, 2023
This map illustrates the paths of the Moon’s shadow across the U.S. during the 2023 annular solar eclipse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Pamela McCall: What will the annular eclipse look like for people here in Utah, or those flocking to this state to see it? 

David Baron: It'll be a deep partial eclipse in Salt Lake City, but if you go a hundred miles south into the path, it's an annular eclipse. You'll see the sun transformed, first into a circle with a little bite carved out of its edge, which is the moon, as it starts to cross in front of the sun. That bite will grow and grow, turning the sun into a crescent and then the crescent will shrink and shrink and shrink. Eventually, if you're in that path of annularity as it's called, you will see the sun as this blazing circle in the sky. But, only look at it through approved solar eclipse glasses, which don't cost very much money. If you don't have them, you'll want to get on it right away.

PM: How will the length of the eclipse vary from place to place in the state of Utah? 

DB: At its maximum, you'll get to see it for about a little over four and a half minutes if you're in the center line of that path. The path goes across Utah, diagonally from the northwest to the southeast, south of Salt Lake City. Capitol Reef is right in the middle of the path, so is the four corners between the states as it goes over to New Mexico. The closer you are to that center line, the longer this period of annularity will last. Bryce Canyon, for instance, is on the very southern part of that path, so you won't get a full four and a half minutes there — you might get to two and a half minutes. If you're right on the edge, it might just last for a few seconds. This is different from the total eclipse in 2017. Back then, you had to be in the path to experience the full grandeur of the total eclipse. For this eclipse, whether you're inside the path or outside, it's still a form of partial eclipse. If you're inside the path, the sun will be a perfect ring. If you're outside the path, the sun will be a very thin crescent. It's still going to be a great show anywhere you are in Utah. It'll still be an inspiring sight and you don't want to miss it.

PM: What's your best advice for people who want to see it but haven't booked ahead? You mentioned you can stay in Salt Lake City, but if you want to maybe get up in the middle of the night and drive to get into position, what should people do? 

DB: I'm going to find a nice overlook where I just have a beautiful vista over red rocks. A solar eclipse isn't just something you see up in the sky. It's kind of an all-consuming experience as the eclipse progresses from the partial phases, which actually will begin little after 9 a.m. until close to 10:30 when it reaches its peak and becomes an annular eclipse. All through that, the light will be changing as the sun dims and dims and the colors will start to change. You'll notice most of this just right before 10:30, but the colors will look different. Light takes on a bit of a silvery cast. As a deep partial eclipse occurs, you may also notice birds start singing like it's dusk coming on and crickets may start chirping. The air is going to get cooler and shadows start to look strange. So, be in a beautiful landscape and watch carefully as the light changes and the temperature changes and the sounds change.

PM: David, A solar eclipse of any kind is important for humanity. Why is that — especially right now?

DB: It's humbling in a way that I think is very useful. It puts your everyday concerns into perspective and it also makes you feel connected with other people. There's actually a lot of research now into the psychology of awe and what it is that the feeling of awe does for the brain and how important awe is in making us feel connected and shrinking the ego and feeling a sense of community with others. So I would say share this experience with people you love, with friends. Sometimes it's fun just to meet up with strangers as well, and suddenly they will feel like friends when you're in the presence of these much larger forces. It's a chance to connect with the universe and with other people.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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