On August 21st 2017 most across North America will experience a once in a lifetime event. For 1 hour, 33 mins and 16.8 secs at midday the moon will line up with the sun and, for a 70 mile swath of earth, the shadow of the moon will sweep across the United States in a total solar eclipse. To the people within that path of totality, from the redwood forests of Oregon to the shores of South Carolina, the sun will seem to disappear for two minutes. The stars will come out as if night time. People who witness total eclipses say the experience is unmatched on Earth or anywhere else in the universe. Umbraphile Kate Russo describes it:
You feel reminded that you are very much in a massive universe, and that you are connected to something much greater than you can possibly imagine. It is my connection with the universe. I sense euphoria, and excitement, and loss afterward when it goes away.
And as it’s such a rare event millions of people are expected to travel to see the total solar eclipse. About twelve million Americans live in one of the twelve states in the path of totality, and some 200 million others live within a days drive. Depending on weather and how many people are up for a Monday road trip, some two to seven million of them are expected to travel to that 70 mile narrow zone. Meaning travelers may experience some of the worst traffic jams in American history.
The eclipse is a special event for which there has been no recent precedent. The days before and after the eclipse could see the greatest temporary mass migration of humans to see a natural event in U.S. history – Highways Authority
Gridlocks are expected across the U.S. for several days before and after the eclipse, similar to what would happen during the evacuation for a hurricane. Regular deliveries might also get stuck in transit, so grocery stores, gas stations and even hospitals have to think about supply chain concerns in the weeks before eclipse travellers get on the road. Hospitals have begun ordering extra medicine for their patients for that week, plus extra supplies to treat an influx of minor injuries that go hand-in-hand with large crowds, like heat stroke.
Risk will be high for pedestrian crashes as celestial events prompt people to wander out into city roads with their heads pointed skyward, and drivers to pull over to get a better view. An obvious recipe for fatal accidents, especially in large numbers.
And most towns on the eclipse path have limited resources, and limited portable toilets, to accommodate a groundswell of visitors. Glendo, Wyoming, population 202, is soliciting donations via GoFundMe to help pay for sanitation and trash services to accommodate its expected 50,000 visitors. In Madras, Oregon, where scientists and tourists are flocking for its clear, high-desert skies, local officials are telling residents to stock up on necessities like medical supplies and water.
This is expected to be be the most photographed, most shared, most tweeted event in human history. The impulse to share pics and Facebook livestreams of the eclipse will likely overwhelm cell towers and broadband networks. And although Verizon, AT&T and Sprint all plan to bring portable cell towers to many areas, cell phone service and smartphone internet are expected to be unavailable inside the path of totality due to the large concentration of people. So visitors should go old-school and print out directions and reservations for hotels and campsites.
People have gathered around ephemeral astronomical phenomena since time immemorial; what’s new this year is the speed and the scale at which they’ll do it. There has not been a total eclipse over such a populous region since 2009, when a total eclipse crossed India, southern China, and parts of Japan. Billions of people would have been able to see and photograph that eclipse. But 2009 was still the early days of social media. This year will be something new.
And spare a thought for those of the population not ‘connected’. They will be making terrified calls to 911 as they won’t know why the sun is darkening. 911 operators are ready to reassure unaware residents and also impart some science education. It could be a frightening occurrence to someone who doesn’t understand what is happening.
And from personal experience, this writer can tell you it’ll all be worth it. Present at the 1999 total eclipse (waaay before social media!) across the Southern UK, I can offer this advice:
Find the town nearest you, pack plenty of water, and get yourself there. Bring sunscreen, a chair, and eclipse glasses, so you can watch the partial phases. Set up early. And then just take it in. We all deserve it.