Technology

It’s impossible to feel the full magic of an eclipse. That’s why I’m always chasing the next one 

This First Person article is the experience of Alan Dyer, who lives in Strathmore, Alta. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I can remember looking at maps of eclipse paths in my childhood astronomy books — likely a Golden Book about space —  and seeing one for Feb. 26, 1979. It was going to pass right over my house in Winnipeg.

1979! That seemed an eternity for me, a star-struck child in the space-race days of the 1960s when the U.S. and Soviet Union vied for supremacy in space exploration. 

But the date eventually arrived. I and several friends from Edmonton, where by then I was working at the Queen Elizabeth Planetarium, made a mid-winter trek to Winnipeg. 

I’ve travelled to 15 solar eclipses since then but the memory of the eclipsed sun seen through my little telescope that day hasn’t been surpassed for its spectacle and detail. We chased into where the clearest skies were forecast to be that morning and had a perfect view of the intricate loops and swirls in the sun’s atmosphere. 

Dyer, far right, and his fellow eclipse chasers celebrate a successful result the 1979 eclipse — Dyer’s first — from a snowy pull-off on the Trans-Canada Highway near Carberry, Man.  (Alan Dyer)

Most people wonder why eclipse chasers, as we call ourselves, would travel the world to see a total eclipse of the sun, created as the shadow of the moon touches the Earth. The usual comment we hear is: “It’s just going to get dark like it does every night, right?”

Wrong. The experience is like nothing you have ever encountered before in your life. All it takes is one total solar eclipse for even the biggest skeptics to be convinced — and indeed, their usual comment moments after totality ends is: “When is the next one, and can we go?” 

Eclipse chasing has taken me to the Arctic and Antarctic, to deserts and to tropical islands. I’ve seen the sun disappear from sites on land, from at sea in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and from the air. 

A black circle is surrounded by a halo of light against a dark background.
The last total eclipse of the sun that could be seen in southern Canada was on the cold morning of Feb. 26, 1979. This photo was shot by Dyer on Kodachrome film. (Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

Each eclipse is unique, both in how different the sun and its pearly atmosphere — the corona — will appear and for the far-flung locations around the globe where totality occurs. That first eclipse I witnessed in 1979 was the last time the dark shadow of the moon crossed populated southern Canada. 

The adventure of getting to what can be a remote site is part of the eclipse experience. For me, the 2024 eclipse is a rare chance to drive to totality with a carload of telescopes and camera gear. My plan was to drive to the Hill Country of Texas. However, poor weather prospects in the U.S. forced me to return to Canada en route, and then head east to Ontario or Quebec. 

By contrast, the April 8, 2024, eclipse is special for being so accessible. Millions of North Americans can watch the eclipse from their backyards, and millions more need only drive a day or two to reach the special path of totality, which runs through Mexico, across more than dozen U.S. states, then through parts of eastern Canada.

A low-angle photo shows people looking up into the sky where the sun with a black hole in the middle is peeking between the clouds. 
Some eclipse paths cross mostly ocean. On April 8, 2005 — 19 years to the day before this year’s eclipse — Dyer watched a total solar eclipse from a ship north of remote Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. (Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

It’s only from within the narrow path of the moon’s central “umbral” shadow that you can see the sun’s brilliant disc totally blocked by the dark disc of the new moon. 

For a few brief minutes, which seem like seconds, the sun turns into what looks like a black hole in the sky. It is a sight so alien you cannot believe what you are witnessing is real. Bright daylight plunges into dim twilight in just moments. 

It is not like any normal nightfall. It struck fear into the minds of people in the past and when you see it, you understand why.

If you’re not in the path, you’re missing out

However, if you’re outside the path — even just by a few kilometres, as in Toronto or northern Montreal — you miss all the phenomena and the emotional high that’s unique to a total eclipse. 

In a deep partial eclipse, the sun will remain as a bright light in the daytime sky. It’s a poor sideshow to the spectacle of totality. 

A stunning compilation image of a solar eclipse, with five moments of the moon partially and fully covering the sun.
The last total solar eclipse in North America was on Aug. 21, 2017. It lasted less than three minutes and could be seen along a path that crossed the United States from coast to coast. This composite photo was created by Dyer from about a dozen photos he shot from his viewing spot near Driggs, Idaho, in the Teton Valley. (Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

A total eclipse seen under clear skies presents such a rapidly changing set of experiences that it’s nearly impossible to take it all in and you inevitably miss some aspect of the scene. 

Perhaps you forget to look around at the colourful twilight glowing along the horizon. Or you miss seeing the planets or stars shining near the sun. Or the onrushing dark shadow of the moon engulfs the sky while you are busy looking at cameras. 

Seeing some missed aspect of an eclipse is one reason why we chase the next ones. It took me several eclipses before I saw the elusive shadow bands, subtle ripples of darkness on the ground that appear just before and after totality. 

I chase eclipses because of — or perhaps in spite of — the emotional roller-coaster they provide. 

The sun with its centre blocked by the shadow of the moon hangs over the ocean with beautiful clouds in the sky.
Dyer says that each eclipse is unique. On July 21, 2009, the low sun at eclipse time produced a remarkable view from Dyer’s vantage point on a ship in the South Pacific near the Cook Islands. (Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

There’s the pre-eclipse anxiety about clouds (especially this year). Then if the clouds permit, within the span of a few minutes, you feel that primeval fear, then sheer awe and wonder, followed by overwhelming joy and relief when the sunlight bursts out again. Even the most skeptical can be reduced to tears. 

It is an experience that assaults the senses. Sight, of course, but it also affects sounds like birdsong, and touch as the air gets colder. 

A shining celestial body in the deep blue sky high above a mountain range.
The enthralling naked-eye view of the August 2017 eclipse as the sky turns dark blue and the horizon is coloured by a 360-degree twilight. Dyer captured this image from an Idaho field about 35 kilometres from the Teton Mountain Range. (Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

Soon after, the eclipse ends and the world returns to normal. 

Except for those of us who watched and whose lives have been changed. We might even start making plans to chase the lunar shadow where and when it next touches the Earth.

WATCH | The sun’s corona is solar matter. Here’s why seeing it matters: 

2024 total eclipse: Seeing the unseeable | About That

The total solar eclipse on April 8 is giving scientists the rare opportunity to view the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere: the corona. Andrew Chang explains why the corona has baffled scientists for almost 200 years and the great strides that have been taken to solve its mystery.


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