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An extraordinary experience: A total solar eclipse

By Samantha Reif, professor of geology, Lincoln Land Community College
Samantha Reif

It’s once in a lifetime — or twice? Illinois is set for a rare, twice-in-a-lifetime event — back-to-back total solar eclipses crossing on the exact same spot. If you remember the eclipse of 2017, the place to be was Carbondale. On April 8, 2024, it will again play host to the same once, or twice, in-a-lifetime celestial event.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon crosses between the sun and the Earth, blocking the yellow surface of the sun from view. Because the moon is so much smaller than the sun, the shadow cast by the moon on the Earth is also very small, meaning only a small area on Earth will be in that small shadow. The moon moves slowly. So once the alignment occurs, the Earth has time to rotate below it, creating a “track” within which the total eclipse can be seen. If you are outside that track, like Springfield, you will see only a partial eclipse, so the yellow surface of the sun will never fully be covered. The April 8 eclipse track hits North America starting in western Mexico and stretching all the way to eastern Canada. 

Solar eclipses themselves are not rare. They can occur up to five times a year. Total solar eclipses are a bit rarer, happening once or twice a year. Odds are good that you would need to take a cruise to see most eclipses, since approximately 75% of the Earth’s surface is water. Eclipse tracks regularly cross due to the geometry of the moon’s orbit, making one spot on Earth the center for two eclipses. What makes Carbondale’s eclipse pair unique and exciting is the fact that these two eclipses fall across North America. It will be more than 600 years before a pair of eclipse tracks cross again in the central U.S., and Illinois’ next total eclipse will be in 2099.

If you have never been lucky enough to see a total solar eclipse, do not miss this chance. We know that we live in a dynamic solar system with large celestial bodies moving around each other, but those motions are hard to see and easy to ignore. An eclipse is a reminder of where we fit in that celestial dance, and it is humbling. Springfield will see about 97% coverage of the sun’s surface in April, which is about the same as in 2017. The event will be noticeable here with the light getting weaker as the eclipse progresses. Around 2:30 p.m. when totality begins in southern Illinois, observers in Springfield using special eclipse glasses or pinhole viewers will see only a tiny sliver of the bright surface of the sun. 

In southern Illinois, totality will be visible for four and a half minutes — a unique and amazing four and a half minutes. It will get dark, fully dark, almost instantly. The stars will be visible, and the night creatures will come to life. The temperature will drop. And in the midst of it all, the sun and the moon are joined. The moon blocking all the yellow surface of the sun that we normally see and allowing the usually outshone solar atmosphere to become visible. The lower atmosphere will be visible in red and orange spikes around the moon’s edge. The ethereal outer corona extends far from the sun, in wispy peaks and valleys. 

In 2017, I took a group to southern Illinois, all of us first timers. The excitement built all day, even as the heat tried to dampen our spirits. When totality was upon us, we cheered and tried to solidify each detail in our memories. As soon as it was over, we all started planning the next one.

That next one is upon us. If you are in Springfield for the eclipse, consider joining Lincoln Land Community College for a day of fun and learning. A stellar solar eclipse watch party is planned with trivia, snacks, music and activities bringing to life all aspects of the eclipse. I will be hosting a live stream from southern Illinois on the college’s Facebook page at various times during the event and during the eclipse itself. It all begins at 12:30 p.m. in A. Lincoln Commons. Visit LLCC for more information.