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'A Beautiful Spectacle': Geographer Makes Case To Witness Solar Eclipse


When the solar eclipse happens on August 21, the best place to watch it will be inside what is called the path of totality. That's a narrow band that crosses the country diagonally from Oregon to South Carolina. If you aren't planning to travel into the path, geographer and eclipse enthusiast Michael Zeiler wants to persuade you that this is a phenomenon worth witnessing firsthand.

MICHAEL ZEILER: It's as if you're on the surface of an alien planet because the sky is unlike anything you've ever seen. You will never forget it all your life.

SHAPIRO: Zeiler has compiled just about everything you could want to know about the eclipse on his website greatamericaneclipse.com. He has witnessed eight total eclipses in his life, so I asked him to walk us through what the experience is like.

ZEILER: You will see light along the horizon shift all around you. It is as if a sunset was compressed from 30 or 40 minutes down to just a few seconds. So it's incredibly rapid how quickly it gets to that degree of darkness. It's not completely dark like midnight, but you will see stars and planets pop out in the sky. But your attention will be grabbed by the side of the corona.

SHAPIRO: The corona that you mention - that's the ring that surrounds the sun when the moon has covered it.

ZEILER: Yes. It has a different appearance with every single eclipse, so even longtime eclipse chasers like myself are excited to see the corona because it has a number of beautiful features - streamers, fans. And if you're very lucky, you might see an explosion of plasma from the sun being object called plasmoids or coronal mass ejections. I saw such a display in Africa several years ago, and it's a sight that will remain with me for my life.

SHAPIRO: Everything that you're describing happens in just about two minutes.

ZEILER: Yes, and that's the real show. Right as a total phase of the eclipse begins, that's when the real peak visual experience, which is called the diamond ring - the diamond ring is the last itty bit of sun that still is visible. And that's the moment when you first see the corona. And that is such a breathtaking sight.

SHAPIRO: Boy, it'll be disappointing if everybody travels these miles and it's cloudy that day.

ZEILER: It sure will be. And that's why people like myself are going to be watching the weather forecast like a hawk. I'm targeting Wyoming as my destination. But starting the week before, I'm going to be looking at the weather forecast very carefully. And if there's cause for concern at my target destination, I'm going to be traveling to another location either in Nebraska or Idaho or wherever we need to be. It is such a beautiful spectacle that it is worth the trouble to travel to an optimum location under clear skies.

SHAPIRO: If people can't get to the path of totality, what will this eclipse be like for people who might get a partial but not total eclipse?

ZEILER: Well, the most interesting site for people outside the path of totality no matter where they are in the United States is to look at the shadows of trees because the gap between the leaves of trees acts as a pinhole projector. And on the ground, you will see a constellation of Crescent shapes. That will be a wonderful spectacle for people that are outside the path.

SHAPIRO: You have traveled the world to see eight eclipses.


SHAPIRO: Why? Once you've seen one, aren't they kind of all the same?

ZEILER: No, absolutely not. It's an addictive process to see a total solar eclipse. Once you've seen totality, you will have a bittersweet emotional - you will be giddy at what you just experienced. And you will have a tinge of sadness that it's over. So your first thought after your first total solar eclipse is, when and where is the next one? And each corona is different because the corona is shaped by the sun's magnetic field, which is always changing. So there's different features that appear.

SHAPIRO: Well, Michael Zeiler, happy watching, and thanks for sharing your enthusiasm with us.

ZEILER: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOT 8 BRASS BAND'S "BOTTOM OF THE BUCKET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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