A Total Eclipse of the Heartland

Making the most of this month’s celestial spectacle

ON THE MORNING OF Monday, Feb. 26, 1979, an ABC News Special Report treated viewers to a sight even more infrequent than a blue moon: a total solar eclipse visible from just five states in the northwestern United States. As the image of the eclipse, a corona with gems of ruby light glittering along its contour, beamed in from Helena, Montana, filling the screen, the reporter told anchor Frank Reynolds, “This is just the most exciting thing that I’ve ever participated in. … Frank, I can’t tell you how lucky we are.” It would be the last time it happened in the century.

This month, on Aug. 21, it will happen again: The advancing shadow of the moon will hurtle across the horizon and the Earth’s surface from the northwest at 1,500 mph. Although Arkansas will see a partial eclipse, with about 90 percent of the sun being obscured—slightly more in the North and East, slightly less in the South and West—the total eclipse like the one viewers saw 38 years ago will be visible in the adjacent states of Missouri and Tennessee.

For those interested in taking advantage of this can’t-miss event, we have a few tips. However, even if you miss it, not to worry: Central Arkansas will be treated to its own total solar eclipses—in 2024 and 2045.

What is a total solar eclipse?

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, casting its shadow on the Earth’s surface. Along a narrow path across the planet, sky-watchers will eventually see the moon completely obscure the sun as it crosses in front of the star. The few minutes when the sun is completely obscured is called “totality.” Outside of this path of totality, we’ll see less of the sun gobbled up by the moon—a partial eclipse.

What can you expect to experience in Arkansas?

We will have a partial eclipse with about 90 percent of the sun obscured. First “contact” will be around 11:45 a.m.; maximum coverage at 1:15 p.m.; last contact at 2:45 p.m. You should notice a drop in temperature as the bright midday light turns to an eerie twilight. Look for multitudes of crescent-shaped images in the shadows of trees on sidewalks or buildings.

What do I need to know about photographing the eclipse?

The main thing to remember is to avoid looking at the sun while taking a photo, either directly or through the viewfinder without appropriate eye protection. Pointing your smartphone, tablet or camera at the sun for several seconds will likely not harm the camera, but you might want to query your manufacturer or a professional. During the few minutes of totality, safety is not an issue—but there will be no totality in Arkansas. To get good photos of the sun itself, you’ll want to use a solar filter, a telephoto lens and a tripod or other steady mount. You’ll want to dispense with the solar filter during totality, though.

What about safety?

In a few words, DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER PROTECTION (certified solar glasses or a particular type of welding glass)—not even for a moment, except for the few minutes of totality, which, again, we won’t have in Arkansas. According to the American Optometric Association, glasses should meet the ISO 12312-2 standard. Glasses can be purchased from Amazon, Eclipse2017.org and numerous other entities. Glasses should be ordered immediately because supplies will likely be short.

Should I travel to the path of the total eclipse?

A partial eclipse will be impressive, no doubt. But if you’re able to swing a trip to see the totality, the answer is yes, yes, yes! A good bet for those living in central Arkansas is to head for anywhere along a line from north of Kansas City to Columbia, Mo., to south of St. Louis, to Nashville. Interstate 70 roughly parallels the path of totality from Kansas City to St. Louis and will allow quick relocation if cloud cover threatens to obscure the eclipse. Particularly if you opt for the total eclipse, don’t let yourself get caught up in mundane details (such as getting a picture that cannot adequately capture the moment of totality) and miss fully experiencing the celestial spectacle.