solar eclipse in western hemisphere

United States gripped by eclipse fever

First total eclipse of the sun in 99 years will be watched by millions from coast to coast

A child watches the last solar eclipse in the United States in 2014.
A child watches the last solar eclipse in the United States in 2014.NASA/Bill Ingalls

The United States is about to experience a once-in-a-lifetime celestial spectacle. For the first time in 99 years, a total eclipse of the sun will cast complete darkness across 14 states from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, creating a “path of totality” and triggering eclipse-mania in the run-up.

But finding the right glasses to appreciate the phenomenon has turned into a wild goose chase for many, although some people have been able to procure them for free from museums after hours of queuing, while others begged them from scientific institutions.

Many people begged for glasses from scientific institutions or queued for hours outside museums giving them away for free

On Sunday night in Charleston, South Carolina, the last city on the path of totality, some people were wearing t-shirts bearing the legend: “Where will you be on August 21 during the solar eclipse?” Others already had their glasses at the ready, several hours before the eclipse was due in town. The atmosphere was buzzing: in the bars, there were even special drinks for the occasion, while most schools and colleges were set to close on Monday.

A city of 134,000, an estimated one million visitors have descended on Charleston to watch the eclipse. Hotels and the streets are full. Although some were nervous of rain or cloud cover, both residents and visitors were brimming with enthusiasm.

“People are really excited,” said Courtney Odom, 31, an artist who has organized a workshop to paint the spectacle. “We’ve had a lot of people signing up.”

A last minute decision to visit one of the epicenters of the eclipse pushed up return flights from Washington to around $2,000, while Charleston’s hotels hiked their prices to $500 a room. It is thought that millions have traveled to other towns on the path of totality, and where a number of activities have been planned to celebrate the event.

Depoe Bay, in Oregón, readies for the eclipse.
Depoe Bay, in Oregón, readies for the eclipse.MIKE BLAKE / REUTERS

Dubbed the Great American Eclipse, the phenomenon will see the moon and the sun in perfect alignment, producing darkness for several minutes. For a few brief moments, the stars will shine and the birds will fall silent, fooled into believing it is nighttime. In the rest of the country, along with Canada, Central America, the northern parts of South America and some parts of Europe, the eclipse will be partial.

Despite the excitement in the United States, total eclipses are not unusual. They happen somewhere on the planet every 18 months, albeit in remote areas, making them hard to catch. The next total eclipse will be in January 2019, with Argentina and Chile offering the best views: the United States will not see another until April 2024.

Today’s eclipse begins at 10.16am local time in Lincoln Beach, Oregon, and its lunar shadow will take 90 minutes to travel west 4,000 km along its 113-km-wide route, taking it through Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and North and South Carolina, finishing in Charleston at 2.48pm.

Cardondale, a small town in Illinois, will witness the longest spell of darkness, with the sun covered for two minutes and 41 seconds, while the most famous city on the path of totality is country music capital Nashville, Tennessee.

Many believe that, being summer, the eclipse will be watched by millions. “It will certainly be the most witnessed eclipse in history,” says astronomer Rick Fienberg of the American Society of Astronomy.

Meanwhile, those looking for a more original way to experience the solar event will be aboard a cruise ship on the East Coast, where Bonnie Tyler will sing her 1983 hit Total Eclipse of the Heart.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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