Why a total solar eclipse rules
A frustrated Jackie Beucher has been hearing from them for months.
They are people who plan to stay put on Aug. 21 because they are under the impression that if they view the total solar eclipse from just outside the path of totality — meaning in cities such as Overland Park or Olathe, Lee’s Summit or Raytown where viewers will see the moon covering more than 99 percent of the sun, but not 100 percent — that such a partial eclipse will be 99 percent as good as seeing the total eclipse.
“No, no, no, no,” the insistent vice president of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City said. “A partial eclipse is nothing compared to a total eclipse. You miss out on everything.”
That sentiment comes from someone who has witnessed seven total eclipses as well as four partial and two annular eclipses (those where the sun’s outer circumference is visible). It is offered as fair warning to every person in every town that lies just beyond the eclipse’s 70-mile-wide path of totality.
The current NASA map shows that path, arching in a line across the United States from Oregon through Missouri and continuing through South Carolina and into the Atlantic Ocean, will just miss dozens of communities in the southern reaches of the Kansas City area. When the eclipse blacks out the sun’s rays just a few minutes after 1 p.m., many in those nearby areas will get a partial rather than total eclipse.
In Olathe, for example, the moon will be seen to cover 99.2 percent of the sun’s surface. In Overland Park, it’ll be 99.6 percent. Lee’s Summit will get 99.7 percent and Raytown 99.8 percent. Many neighborhoods and even buildings across Kansas City, just outside the path’s outer edge, will be at 99.9 percent.
Although that may sound good enough, it will be far less than ideal because of the sun’s intensity, said Angela Speck, a professor of astronomy at the University of Missouri and co-chairwoman of a national eclipse task force for the American Astronomical Society.
“The sun is a million times brighter than the full moon,” Speck said. “What that means is that even with 99 percent of the sun covered up, and 1 percent showing, it is still 10,000 times brighter than the full moon.”
In fact, it will still be too bright to look safely without using solar glasses. A partial eclipse that covers 99.9 percent of the sun’s surface will be still be 1,000 times brighter than a full moon.
Thus, it will not offer the same experience as a total eclipse. The light of day will dim some. Birds may begin to flock as they do preceding a full eclipse. But …
“Until it is completely blocked, you don’t get the darkness,” Speck said. “Even at 99.9 percent, you do not get to see the corona. You do not get to see the stars, all of that. The sun is just so bright.”
Beucher has given more than 45 eclipse talks this year in the Kansas City area. The notion that the Aug. 21 total solar is just a different version of the more common partial or annular eclipses that people remember from childhood is a major impediment to understanding its significance.
“Every single program I do, that is the hurdle I have to get over,” she said. “I say to people, ‘You have to forget that hole you punched in the box and projected on the other side.’ People have that in their heads that that’s all this experience is going to be. They’re so very, very wrong.”
Speck and Beucher tend toward what seems like hyperbole in describing a total solar eclipse. Both insist they are not exaggerating what it is like to see the blackness of the black hole that the eclipse creates, surrounded by the sun’s silvery corona.
The rest of the country will see varying partial eclipses. Even Hawaii will see the moon cover a maximum of 33 percent of the sun. Alaska will see it cover 49 percent.
But compared to a total solar eclipse?
“The best simile I use is the Grand Canyon,” Beucher said. “Your whole life you’ve seen pictures of the Grand Canyon and seen movies taken of the Grand Canyon. You think you’re gong to go there to see it once, just for the hell of it.
“You go there, and you walk up to the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time: The beauty of it. The depth of it just washes over you. It’s like waves of goose bumps all over your body.
“Now take a feeling like that and multiply it by a good factor of five and you might get close to what seeing a total eclipse is like.”
Some say that seeing a 99.9 percent partial eclipse instead of a total eclipse is like driving up to the gate of Grand Canyon National Park without viewing the actual canyon. Or it’s like being a quarter mile from the Pacific Ocean you’ve never seen and deciding to turn back.
Speck of MU goes even further.
“I think there are a couple of different ways of thinking about it,” she said. “There are some things that people ought to see in their lifetimes, right? If you grow up in Missouri, you could live your entire life without ever seeing the ocean. Don’t you think that would be a shame?
“Now I want you to imagine that what you’re seeing is the ocean over the Grand Canyon, but with a volcano in the middle of that, erupting.”
“I’m not,” Speck insisted. “No, I’m not. People literally can’t stop themselves from cursing because they’re so impressed. People cry because they have never seen anything like it. I’m not overselling it, I promise.
“It is a cosmic experience.”