Totality: My Experience of the Great American Eclipse

 

On August 21, 2017, the United States of America witnessed what may be the most spectacular natural phenomenon visible to the human eye: a total solar eclipse. The event – dubbed the “Great American Eclipse” – was actually visible to some degree all across North America. But only those situated within the narrow “path of totality” got to witness the splendor of the complete blockage of the sun by the moon. The path of totality was approximately 70 miles wide and stretched from the State of Oregon in the Pacific to South Carolina in the Atlantic, cutting through the American heartland. My family and I made the trip from Toronto to St. Louis, Missouri to be in the path of totality, and it was well worth the 12 hour drive!

Before getting into the actual eclipse experience, I must mention my debt of gratitude to the Lord Jesus Christ for His favor upon our journey, the opportunity, and the experience. First, as any eclipse chaser will almost certainly tell you, one of the biggest threats (if not the biggest) to the experience is clouds and weather. I prayed and trusted God to clear the skies for us – even as He parted the waters of the Red Sea for Moses. As the day drew near, the shifting weather forecast for St. Louis on eclipse day presented some concerns including the risk of thunderstorms. Yet I prayed to the Lord, and trusted Him (although, if I said I was not at all concerned, I would be lying)! And God heard our prayers!! As the eclipse was happening, if you looked to certain parts of the sky around us, you would see various clouds – some of them very threatening-looking, particularly in the direction of what looked like the South-West. Yet those threatening clouds never touched our part of the sky, and indeed I overheard one gentleman say to someone that “we were lucky, there was a thunderstorm…” (or something like that)! “Luck?” No, not luck! Also, additional clouds moved in after we viewed the event that almost certainly would have affected us negatively had they come in while we were viewing. But they did not affect us while we were viewing. For these blessings, I give God the glory, and thank Him for answering our prayers! The God who parts the seas can also part the clouds! That being said, a huge thank you to Brenda G. who was in Toronto and was praying for us to have favorable weather! She is quite the prayer warrior!

Secondly, prior to settling on St. Louis, I had wanted to view the eclipse from Carbondale, Illinois – where the length of totality was of a longer duration than St. Louis. However, hotel rooms were either completely booked, or really, really expensive. So we settled on St. Louis. Turns out that Carbondale had some cloud issues, and the amount of totality we were able to see in St. Louis was greater than what was seen at a viewing site in Carbondale because of the clouds in Carbondale! Again, we believe the Lord directed our steps!

The Eclipse Begins

“First contact” (when the moon first begins to eclipse the sun) in St. Louis occurred at about 11:50am CDT. Looking through the eclipse glasses, what one sees at this point is simply a tiny bite taken out of the sun. Through the glasses, the sun looks like a round, yellow-orange ball. During the pre-totality partial phase of the eclipse, the “bite” taking out of this ball gets larger until the sun begins to look like a thin crescent. Those in other parts of North America who witnessed a partial eclipse – such as those in Toronto, Canada – would have seen something similar to this to some extent. During the initial stages of the eclipse, there is no obvious change in the environment around you.

The Eclipse Progresses

As the obscuration of the sun by the moon continued, things eventually begin to be noticed in the surrounding environment. First, there seemed to be a slight dimming in sunlight. To be honest, at this point I was not sure if the dimming was a result of a thin cloud overhead (the cloud was not thick enough to block the show), or the blocking of the sun by the moon. However, as the eclipse progressed, there definitely appeared to be a change in light, though a very slight one. The temperature also seemed to cool down slightly. It was a hot day in St. Louis, so it was interesting how the temperature seemed to become more comfortable as the eclipse progressed. This is an expected feature of a solar eclipse.

Approaching Totality  

As we got later in the game, things got really interesting. First, the sunlight appeared to continue to dim, though at a very slow rate. Secondly, there was a neat “projection affect” that was quite interesting to see. We had some trees near us, and on the ground underneath

Several images of the crescent sun projecting through the gaps in the leaves.

the trees were several image projections of the crescent sun (see photo to the right). This occurs as light form the eclipsed sun passes through the gaps in the leaves and hits the ground. Also, shadows become crisper than normal as the eclipse progresses. The reduced sunlight allows for sharper shadow contours than during full sunlight. At this point, the excitement and anticipation really begins to build. Actually, something I should have mentioned earlier: the entire eclipse prior to totality is filled with excitement and anticipation. The earlier stages in the eclipse are really neat, and wonderful to experience, and part of the fun is the anticipation of totality. As the eclipse progresses, you know that totality is approaching, and this very expectation adds tremendous value to the lead up to totality.

Immediately Before Totality

Just before totality, things begin to happen at a faster pace. When looking through the eclipse glasses, the sun has become quite a thin crescent as the black moon now dominates the scene. We had brought a white bed sheet with us to put on the ground, as one of the features you will see on the ground right before and right after totality are what are known as “shadow bands” or “snake bands.” These are wavy bands that appear to slither on the ground. We saw them immediately after totality but did not notice then (or catch them) before totality.

Before the moon completely blocked the sun, something just seemed clearly not right with respect to the light in the environment. Remember that this change in light is not the setting sun, so the effect is different. Things just look “off.” Now, is when things really happen fast! As the moon is about to cover the last remaining crescent, a really neat thing happens in the Western sky. Looking west, the sky was very much darker than what it was above us. What we actually saw in the west was the moon’s shadow on its approach to cover us.

Totality    

I can honestly tell you that totality was the most spectacular thing I have ever witnessed in terms of a natural phenomenon. It was worth the wait – and the drive! Looking through the glasses, the last remaining sliver of the sun was gone. Fairly quickly, the darkness engulfed us as the moon’s shadow coming in from the west overtook us. The planet Venus emerged like a diamond in the darkened sky. Tammy also noticed other stars emerge. Think about, stars out in the daytime! A choir of crickets also suddenly serenaded us, as the crickets – perhaps confused by the sudden onset of darkness – thought it was evening time.

The sky was a dark blue, perhaps similar to what it looks like at dusk. However, closer to the

My daughter and I observing totality. Note the darkened environment. This picture was taken just before 1:20 pm. 

 horizon appeared similar to what the western sky looks like late at sunset – after the sun sets. What we were seeing with the lighter sky close to the horizon were the areas outside of totality that still had some measure of direct sunlight.

As neat as the darkened sky is in the middle of daytime, this was not the highlight of the event. The highlight is without doubt the sun-moon combo in the sky during totality. At this point in the eclipse, it is safe to remove your glasses and gaze unhindered at the beauty that is totality. No picture will do it justice. My words cannot convey the wonder of this spectacle. You have to experience it for yourself! Yet I will try my best to paint a picture with words for you. The sky is a dark blue. The moon is an intense black. And adorning the moon like a white crown is the pretty corona of the sun, which is the sun’s atmosphere. The corona, perhaps the “star actor of the show,” appears as streaky white bands that are somewhat triangular in shape that end as a point. Again, you have probably seen many pictures of total eclipses. They do not do justice to what you actually see. It is simply splendid! Perhaps it is fitting to quote Psalm 19:1 here:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (NIV)

During the Great American Eclipse – over St. Louis anyway – the corona featured what appeared to be three distinct streaks. You can click here to get an idea of what the August 21 eclipse looked like, but again, pictures do not do justice! Totality was very brief – only approximately 1 minute and 40+ seconds. Yet it was a magnificent 1:40+.

After Totality

The events after totality are basically a reverse of the lead up to totality. Couple things to point out here: First, immediately after totality as the sun was re-emerging from behind the moon, the sun’s light in the environment seemed very strange. Whether it was my eyes re-adjusting, the sudden influx of light, or the quantity light coming through (or a combination of those things), I recall the light appearing to be somewhat grey, though not the grey of cloud cover. In any case, it was distinctly different than your normal daylight tone. Secondly, we noticed the “shadow bands” right after totality, which appeared as slivering bands on the white bed sheet we laid on the ground.

Summing it up!

As noted earlier, no natural phenomenon that I have experienced up to this point in my life even comes close to the experience of a total solar eclipse. Totality was brief and leaves you wanting more. Yet the good news is that we do not have to wait long for the next opportunity. Mark April 8, 2024 in your agendas and on your calendars. On that date, a total solar eclipse will trace a narrow lunar shadow corridor that will include Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Yes, I know it’s almost 7 years away. But if the Great American Eclipse of August 21, 2017 is any indication, preparations for the “Great North American Eclipse” of April 8, 2024 would best be made early!

One final thought. It is interesting to me that the darkness and cooler temperatures experienced during a total solar eclipse occur because something (i.e. the moon) gets in between the sun and us. Yet if we look to the sun during these times of darkness (during totality), we would see an aspect of the sun that we would not otherwise see: it’s beautiful corona. I think there is an interesting parallel here with respect to the human experience with God. Sometimes things get in between us and God, or in between us and our experience of God. It may be sin, or it may be difficult circumstances of some kind that we allow to cloud our perspective of God. During these times, we may sense a distance from God – a darkness and a coldness. In the case of the fallen, sinful human condition, there is a separation between us and God. Yet in those times when something gets in between us and God, or during dark and difficult circumstances, we can experience Him, or see an “aspect” of His being that we would not otherwise experience or see – if we will but look unto Him! If it is a difficult circumstance, it may be His loving care and provision that comes into greater focus in times of trial. In the case of sin, it is His mercy that we may come to know and discover – or rediscover. The darkness of an eclipse allows for the sun’s beautiful corona to be seen. And the darkness of sin allows for the mercy of God to be experienced! And of course, it is in Jesus Christ, the Son of God that we find forgiveness for all our sins, and receive the wonderful mercy of God!

“…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” – Romans 5:20, NASB

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