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Millions to Converge August 21 in Total Eclipse Zone

Jim Calpin
Jim Calpin demonstrates an improvised eclipse viewer made from a shoebox.

Jim Calpin will go to great lengths to be in the dark. He will drive from Chesterfield County to South Carolina with his wife and grandchildren to experience a total eclipse of the sun August 21.

This is no ordinary eclipse, if there is such a thing. It will be the first time in 99 years that a solar eclipse has stretched from coast to coast across the continental United States. The center of the sun's shadow cast by the moon will enter the U.S. in Oregon, race diagonally across 14 states and exit over the Atlantic Ocean at Charleston, S.C.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon completely blocks the sun. During a total eclipse, people outside the zone of totality will experience a partial eclipse.

People in the U.S. will be able to witness this eclipse to varying degrees. Those in an approximately 70-mile-wide swath will have a total eclipse. People in the far northeast or southwest United States will be in the 60% eclipse zone.

Richmond never has had a total eclipse since the city was founded in 1737. This eclipse will be approximately 86% in the Richmond area. But Calpin, a retired chemist and amateur astronomer, won't settle for just 86%. That's why he and an estimated 7.5 million people from around the world will converge in the narrow total eclipse area.

During any eclipse, there is concern that people will sneak a quick peak at the sun. Serious eye damage or blindness can result.

“Even looking for just a second is too much,” Calpin said. Dire warnings are posted on the Internet, cautioning never to look directly at the sun without proper eye protection.

“Sunglasses won't do it,” Calpin warns. He notes that there are special, reasonably priced, glasses available for viewing an eclipse. Binoculars and telescopes equipped with filters are other options.

Calpin says an eclipse can be viewed indirectly using a simple pinhole camera made from a shoebox or similar container. Instructions are available on the Internet. He said some who watch using telescopes or binoculars prefer to project the image onto a white surface.

In spite of the dangers of looking at the sun during a partial eclipse, it’s all right to take off eye protection in the very brief period of totality because the moon hides the sun completely, Calpin said. In fact, he encourages it.

“You can see the stars and planets just like at night. The birds stop singing and the crickets start chirping.” He said the temperature drops about 10 degrees. “You don’t notice at first because it’s gradual, but all of a sudden you feel a chill.”

Those hoping to experience an eclipse could face disappointment. If it’s cloudy, or even if a single cloud passes over at just the wrong moment, the eclipse will be blocked.

“It’s a crap shoot,” Calpin said. He saw a total eclipse on a cloudless day in 1973 in Virginia Beach. But on August 21, he and others in the total eclipse zone will be watching the weather forecasts and, if necessary, try to relocate.

Even the seconds before an eclipse begins can be exciting, as the shadow created by the moon races toward the viewer. “If you are up high enough, you see it rushing toward you like a freight train, only much faster,” Calpin said. The speed varies with location, but near Charleston the shadow will travel at about 1,500 miles per hour.

The eclipse in Charleston will start at 2:45 p.m. It will be total for two minutes and 45 seconds. In the Richmond area, the partial eclipse will begin at 1:18 p.m., reach its maximum coverage at 2:44 p.m. and end at 4:04 p.m.

Untold millions, including scientists, amateur astronomers and the just plain curious, are expected to clog highways and airports traveling to the total eclipse zone.

“If you haven’t already made hotel reservations, it’s too late,” said Calpin, who reserved a motel room in Santee, S.C., near Charleston, well over a year ago. He plans to drive to Charleston the day before the eclipse.

Food, water and bathroom facilities could be in short supply. Another concern is that, when the eclipse ends, millions of people visiting the total zone will immediately leave for home, causing even greater traffic jams.

The next total eclipse visible in the U.S. will run from Houston to Buffalo in 2024, Calpin said.