Oh, the Totality!

It’s coming. Portland is effectively out of rental cars, Corvallis has no room in the proverbial inn, and the sky is falling. Well, not falling, per se, but the local conversation of late often turns, with Chicken Little persistence, to August 21st when the moon will swallow the Sun. If you’re tempted into thinking that having seen the Sun set lets you know what to expect when the sky is short one Sun, the totality of the eclipse is much more than a short span of shade. Whether you are a Corvallis native or just in town for the big day, it’s worth taking a minute to prepare yourself for life on the dark side of the Sun.

Solar eclipses, like the one on its way, are caused by the moon passing between the Sun and the Earth. Due to the frequency of the respective orbits, a solar eclipse happens somewhere on Earth about once every 18 months or so. The reason this one in particular is such a big deal is because of its location. Depending on where you are on the planet, you might see different things. In some places, the Sun will appear briefly as a crescent, before returning to normal, circular shining. Corvallis, however, finds itself in something called the “path of totality,” though it is not nearly as ominous as it sounds. The path of totality is a roughly 75-mile-wide swath of land, stretching from coast to coast, in which the Sun will be totally hidden behind the moon. During this time, anyone within it will be plunged into night. Really though, it is only the moon’s shadow, or umbra, which provides the respite from the summer rays.

Corvallis can expect to experience totality for 1 minute and 40 seconds, beginning at about 10:16 a.m. The last time a solar eclipse took place over Corvallis was in 1979, and the next one will be in 2108. Even if you’re feeling awfully young and make it to the next eclipse, Corvallis will not be in the path of totality, and a crescent Sun is the most effect it will provide.

If just under 2 minutes isn’t enough eclipse action for you, don’t worry. The entire even lasts for over two hours. Beginning at about 9:05 a.m. and finishing up at 11:37 a.m., if you step outside at look at the Sun, you’re going to be looking at part of the eclipse. But wait! Don’t just go looking at the Sun. There’s a reason why parents tell their children not to stare directly at the Sun. The intensity of the light is so great that it can cause serious, and permanent, damage to the retina, the part of your eye that actually “sees.” That’s why eclipse glasses are so important. Think of them as shades that let you ignore what your parents taught you and stare right at that big, bright Sun. There is, however, a period in which you can remove your glasses and not even go blind. You guessed it: totality. Because the Sun will be completely hidden behind the moon, the light is reduced to a pearlescent halo around the silhouette of the moon, complete with jets and loops of the violent fusion reaction that we too often forget is the source of our comfortably warm sunshine. As soon as totality is over, and the Sun begins to peek out from behind it’s hiding spot, the eclipse glasses should go back on your face.

Although the dance of the heavenly bodies is what comes to mind at the thought of an eclipse, there is also a plethora of out-of-the-ordinary occurrences that will be happening down here on Earth, you just have to know where to look. The length of the eclipse from start to finish is just enough time to start fooling plants and animals into an early nighttime routine. Chickens and roosters may stop their clucking and head into the coop. Crickets and other insects may begin signing their evening songs. Even humans will feel some of the effects. The temperature will drop by 10 or even 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and with that lowered temperature would come gentler winds. It’s enough to make a warm summer day turn temporarily into fall. Of course, nature moves slowly. You probably won’t catch animals sleeping, just getting ready for bed. The trees won’t think it’s fall and begin shedding their leaves. It will act as a way to view the transition from day to night that people aren’t often afforded, because usually we’re getting ready for night along with everything else.

The eclipse will offer another spectacular sight, but this one displayed on the ground. Typically, as sunlight passes through the small gaps in between leaves, it forms tiny circles in which a camera obscura image of the Sun is formed on the ground. It’s so normal and everyday that you may never have even noticed it. During an eclipse, those perfectly circular images of the Sun will behave exactly the same way as the real deal. Hundreds of tiny crescents will dance under your feet through the boughs of the trees, like a disco ball of celestial circumstance. As the eclipse approaches totality, the crescents, too, will fade away. Look instead for rippling “shadow bands” caused by the last bit of sunlight tumbling through turbulent air. The effect of these bands is easiest to see on a light-colored, smooth surface, like a white house or a sheet of posterboard. As totality begins, and just as it begins to leave, watch the edges of the moon. While it is easy to see the so-called “man in the moon,” and understand that those marks represent geological features of another floating rock in space, it doesn’t evoke the same feeling as looking into the Grand Canyon. However, just as the sun sets and rises over the edge of the moon’s horizon, you can see the mountains and plains, peaks and valleys, and it sinks. Besides missing air, water, and good company, the moon is a place not unlike here. It’s just as real, and more than a nightlight for us Earthlings.

All those once-in-a-lifetime sights all happening on a weekend here in the Willamette Valley has turned the area into a prized destination for eclipse tourism. Estimates suggest that as many as 500,000 people may pour into the Valley over the weekend. Hotels have been booked full for months, many campsites are similarly at capacity. While unwise to wait any longer to find a place to stay, if you count yourself among the half-a-million eclipse-goers, there may still be Corvallis residents offering up overnight deals on some backyard camping via Craigslist, or using AirBnB to fill guest bedrooms. City officials recommend getting here early, and doing and errands before the weekend. Many travelers are coming in RV’s and rental cars, so expect more traffic than normal, both during and immediately following the eclipse. Officials recommend staying beyond the official end of the eclipse to avoid the worst of it. Logistically, treat the entire weekend like an extended Beavers vs. Ducks Civil War game.

While there are certain to be bigger crowds than usual everywhere you go, the area has plenty of activities going on to help get you in the eclipse-gazing mood. Distilleries, vineyards, and breweries all over the Willamette Valley have special events going on. You can always catch a quality movie at Darkside Cinema. Corvallis’ local farmers market will be taking place on 1st street on Saturday, August 20th. That’s definitely worth checking out if you are new to the area. Be advised, if you see something advertised, call ahead just to make sure they aren’t full to bursting before you brave the traffic. Be sure to check our calendar printed in this very paper, or online. Whatever you end up doing, it’s guaranteed to be a true once-in-a-lifetime experience, no matter how you look at it. Except, still definitely don’t look at it without the special glasses.

By Kyle Bunnell