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'The shadow of the moon': How Kansans are preparing for the solar eclipse

Wichita astronomer Fred Gassert is getting ready to travel to Texas to view the total solar eclipse next week.
Rose Conlon
Wichita astronomer Fred Gassert is getting ready to travel to Texas to view the total solar eclipse next week.

A partial eclipse will be visible from Kansas, but some residents are traveling to the path of totality.

A total solar eclipse will stretch across North America on Monday, momentarily darkening the skies in parts of 15 U.S. states.

Kansas isn’t in the path of totality. But residents can still glimpse a partial eclipse — or, with a little planning and some luck, travel a few hours away to witness it fully.

“It’s a really unique event,” said Wichita astronomer Fred Gassert, “and this just happens to be the last time it’s going to happen around here for a long, long time.”

Gassert, an elevator contractor by trade, is chairman of the board of Lake Afton Public Observatory in Goddard, Kansas. He’s also in charge of the volunteer Kansas Astronomical Observers group, which banded together to reopen the observatory in 2016 after Wichita State University shut it down.

For weeks, the group has held outreach events to educate Kansans about the upcoming eclipse. But Gassert, like most other local sky enthusiasts, will leave town for the astronomical event itself — because, he said, a partial eclipse doesn’t come close to experiencing totality.

The last time a total eclipse occurred in the contiguous U.S., in 2017, Gassert trekked to Nebraska to see it.

“The birds went nuts. You could hear coyotes howling,” he said. “It’s just a real strange feeling to watch it get dark.”

A timelapse shows the 2017 eclipse at Gassert's viewing location near Humboldt, Nebraska.

Like many places that day, clouds complicated his and his family’s viewing experience, obscuring all but a few seconds of precious totality.

This year, they’re heading to Austin, Texas, for the big event. Weather permitting, they’ll witness around 2 minutes and 30 seconds of totality.

Even Gassert’s wife, Carol — who doesn’t exactly share his astronomical obsession — is looking forward to it.

“(The 2017 eclipse) was definitely something different,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to see this one — if we can actually get a full view of it without the clouds.”

What makes an eclipse so special?

During a total solar eclipse, the moon crosses in front of the sun, wholly blocking its rays. It can be the middle of the day and the sky will darken. The temperature drops and crickets start chirping.

The sun’s outer atmosphere, called its corona, blazes around the perimeter of the moon.

“Another way to say it,” said Christopher Sorensen, a professor emeritus of physics at Kansas State University, “is you’re standing in the shadow of the moon.”

He said the eclipse offers an opportunity for people of all ages to learn more about space. In 2017, he worked with K-State administrators to ensure students would be able to travel to see the eclipse, which happened to fall on the first day of classes.

He and dozens of others loaded onto buses and set off for Highland, Kansas — only for clouds to roll in five minutes before totality, obstructing their view.

“I was heartbroken, as were many of us,” he said.

“Nevertheless, we had quite a treat because you could see the shadow of the moon slowly coming towards us, as if certain doom were about to descend on us.

“So it was a very magical event,” he added. “I saw Jupiter through a rift in the clouds.”

Sun spots were visible during totality near Humboldt, Nebraska on Aug. 21, 2017.
Courtesy Kris Flory
Sun spots were visible during totality near Humboldt, Nebraska on Aug. 21, 2017.

This year, Sorensen is determined to witness it fully — for what he said might be the last opportunity of his lifetime. He’s prepared to drive almost anywhere to outrun the clouds.

“From what I’ve read about totalities, many people can’t really find words to express it properly,” he said. “I still want to have that experience in my lifetime.”

How Kansans can view the eclipse

There won’t be another total eclipse in the contiguous U.S. for another two decades. Experts encourage anyone who’s able to travel to the path of totality on Monday to do so.

Dallas; Idabel, Oklahoma; Russellville, Arkansas, and West Plains, Missouri, are all within a six-hour drive, without traffic, from Wichita. Residents of northeast Kansas could reach totality in southeastern Missouri in even less time.

Sorensen said, no matter what your plans are, it’s important to be prepared.

Communities in the path of totality could see their populations double — or even triple — because of record interest in the astronomical event. Some towns have issued disaster declarations, warning that local resources will be strained, stores could run out of food and gas, and cell service could falter. Traffic is inevitable.

For Kansans staying home, there will still, hopefully, be something to see.

In Wichita, between 12:31 p.m. and 3:06 p.m., the moon will inch between the city and the sun. The partial eclipse will peak at 1:48 p.m. and nearly 90% of the sun will be covered. Other parts of the state can expect to see between 70% and 95% of the sun covered.

“You’ll see that dark moon encroaching on the sun to various degrees,” Sorensen said. “The sun might look like a crescent moon in shape — of course, you might say it’s a crescent sun.”

Eye protection is a must for everyone viewing the solar eclipse.
Rose Conlon
Eye protection is a must for everyone viewing the solar eclipse.

A number of Kansas organizations are hosting eclipse viewing events, including Exploration Place in Wichita and the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson. Lake Afton Public Observatory won’t be open during the eclipse, but Gassert said there will be an informal event in the parking lot with a limited number of eclipse glasses available.

How to protect your eyes

During totality, it’s safe to look at the eclipse with your naked eye. But if the sun isn’t 100% covered, you’ll need proper eye protection to avoid permanent damage. That means, for people viewing from Kansas, there is no safe time to look directly at the sun.

Regular sunglasses won’t cut it. The best plan is to get inexpensive eclipse glasses from a reputable seller to ensure they’re not counterfeit.

If all else fails, you can use a makeshift pinhole camera to view the sun’s reflection on the ground. The American Astronomical Society has instructions, along with a number of other options, here.

Or, Sorensen said, just go stand under a tree.

“On any sunlit day, you’ll see sunlight filtering through the leaves of the tree — and those speckles are actually images of the sun and so-called pinhole camera effects,” he said. “During the eclipse, you’ll see a whole bunch of little crescents.”

What if it’s cloudy?

Cloudy skies could dampen the effect of the eclipse or threaten to obscure it completely. Current projections show a good chance of cloud coverage over some of the path of totality, including parts of Texas, Arkansas and Ohio.

But experts say it’s hard to know for sure what conditions will be like until closer to the event — and, ultimately, catching a glimpse may involve some luck. Traffic jams could frustrate eclipse-chasers who try to make last-minute changes in the hours before the event.

Lastly, Sorensen said, if you’re lucky enough to witness the eclipse, try to appreciate it.

“This is a very quick event, and it’s a very rare event,” he said. “Don’t get too carried away with trying to take videos or fumbling with your equipment. Enjoy the reality of the situation.”

Rose Conlon is a reporter based at KMUW in Wichita, but serves as part of the Kansas News Service, a partnership of public radio stations across Kansas. She covers health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.