In Our View: Eclipse is a Big Deal

Protect your eyes, make a plan and enjoy the science as moon blots out the sun

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It just might be the biggest thing in these parts since D.B. Cooper jumped out of an airplane. Or maybe since Mount St. Helens blew its top. Or maybe since the Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

By any measure, a solar eclipse is a big deal. The sun will briefly disappear Monday, blocked as the moon passes between our vantage point and the star that warms and lights Earth. For Clark County viewers, at 10:19 a.m. the sun will be 99 percent blocked by the moon.

It’s not quite total darkness; to experience that, you will need to head south to Oregon. Among communities in that state, Huntington — in Baker County, along the border with Idaho — will experience the longest total eclipse at 2 minutes, 9 seconds, according to Eclipse2017.org. But numerous areas throughout Oregon will experience darkness as the eclipse carves its swath across the state.

Lest you wonder what all the fuss is about, consider these facts: It is the first total solar eclipse to hit the contiguous United States since 1979; with complete darkness taking place in 14 states, from Oregon to South Carolina, it is the first total eclipse to sweep across the country since 1918; and the next total eclipse in the U.S., in 2024, will be visible from Texas to Maine.

Which brings us to an important reminder: Be careful about how you “see” the eclipse. Special viewing glasses are a must for watching the event and protecting your eyes. Staring at the sun is never recommended, and the partial coverage of the orb during an eclipse can increase the danger. “The important thing for Vancouver: You will never have totality, so never take off your glasses,” Oregon State University astronomer Randall Milstein told The Columbian. “Once your eyes are fried, that’s it.”

Another word of warning: You probably want to avoid the roads Monday as an estimated 1 million visitors are expected in Oregon. Some 17,000 cars are scheduled to be rented out of Portland International Airport during a three-day period around the eclipse, matching the average number for an entire week.

With those cars added to a typical Monday commute and exacerbated by people from throughout Washington heading south, officials are expecting Carmageddon. “Seeing an eclipse is supposed to be a good time,” said Dave Thompson of the Oregon Department of Transportation. “If you don’t plan for this, you won’t have a good time. You won’t have a good time if you’re stuck in traffic for 12 hours.”

For those who plan ahead, the eclipse can, indeed, be a good time while providing a fascinating science lesson.

For one example, when totality occurs at the Oregon coast, the shadow will be moving across the sun at 2,955 mph. Because of the curvature of Earth and the sun’s changing position in the sky, the shadow will be moving about 1,500 mph by the time the eclipse hits the South Carolina coast. For another, the sun is about 400 times larger than the moon and is about 400 times farther away, meaning they appear to be roughly the same size when in alignment. And finally, because the moon is slowly moving away from Earth (at about 1 1/2 inches per year), the final solar eclipse will occur approximately 600 million years from now, according to NASA scientists.

See? Science can be fun, and for months the coming eclipse has piqued the interest of people throughout the Northwest and beyond. All of that makes for the biggest event to hit these parts in quite some time.