The 2024 total solar eclipse isn't far away. Why people living in the path should prepare to travel.
What makes this eclipse so spectacular is its duration and the millions more who will be able to witness the extraordinary event. But even if you live in the path of totality, the weather may force you to travel.
A solar eclipse that took place Aug. 21, 2017, as viewed from Wisconsin. (Getty Images)
This astronomy blog was written by Dr. Gordon Telepun, an expert eclipse photographer and eclipse educator and the developer of the solar eclipse timing app Solar Eclipse Timer.
Another total solar eclipse for the U.S.
On Monday, April 8, 2024, the United States is lucky enough to be in the shadow of the Moon again - less than seven years after the wonderful eclipse we witnessed on Aug. 21, 2017.
The 2017 total solar eclipse introduced millions of people to a spectacular astronomical event of watching the Sun be obscured by the passing Moon and seeing that black dot in the sky surrounded by the glistening corona.
The beautiful asymmetry of the 2017 solar corona is seen in this high dynamic range image. The observing site was Madisonville, Tennessee.
Millions experienced the geometry of standing in the umbra, the shadow of the Moon, and becoming part of a 94 million-mile alignment of the Sun, Moon, and Earth.
For some who experienced the 2017 eclipse, once will be enough. They’ll say “been there, done that” and they will not make the effort to travel to the path again. However, I believe that the vast majority of people who witnessed the eclipse in 2017 will want that awesome experience again and will make plans to see the 2024 eclipse.
It’s quite amazing to think about what it meant to stand in the umbra in 2017 when its maximum width was only 71 miles wide. The 94 million-mile alignment moved the umbra across the Earth at a speed averaging 2,000 mph and you managed to stand in it!
I have spoken to dozens of people who missed seeing totality in 2017 and regretted it tremendously afterward when they heard stories about how spectacular it was. These people will certainly not miss it again in 2024.
Furthermore, the 2017 eclipse simply increased everyone’s awareness about solar eclipses and the 2024 eclipse will create even more of a buzz. And we won’t be disappointed because compared to 2017, this is a long eclipse!
In 2017, the maximum totality duration was 2 minutes and 40 seconds in southern Illinois and western Kentucky. In 2024, the maximum totality duration is 4 minutes and 26 seconds in Texas and it stays over 4 minutes from Texas to the middle of Indiana.
The Point of Greatest Eclipse is located in Mexico. At the U.S. border in Texas, on the centerline, the totality duration is 4 minutes and 26.9 seconds. At the U.S. border in Maine, on the centerline, the totality duration is still 3 minutes and 21.6 seconds. (Both times are presented uncorrected for lunar limb variation)
Millions more to witness 2024 eclipse
Versus 2017, besides the increased eclipse awareness, a big factor contributing to more people witnessing the 2024 eclipse is the fact that its path crosses over more densely populated areas. It also has a wider umbra, so it covers more square miles of land.
The path is 120 miles wide in Texas and 106 miles wide in Maine. Therefore, many metropolitan areas fall within the path. This map by Michael Zeiler details cities that are inside the path. Visit Michael’s website for more information here.
Michael Zeiler is an eclipse cartographer who publishes beautifully detailed eclipse maps that are truly works of art. His extensive experience with map creating also allows him to drill down and publish maps that include interesting data such as cities in the path or national parks in the path.
Zeiler estimates that 32 million people live in the path of the 2024 eclipse!
Living in the path: A true disaster story
Before the 2017 eclipse, via email, I was doing eclipse photography coaching with a woman from western Missouri. This would be her first solar eclipse experience. We discussed all of the routine things: her gear, solar filters, camera settings such as focal lengths, shutter speeds, aligning and focusing, etc. She was using my Solar Eclipse Timer app to time the eclipse and overall, I felt she would be prepared. She was so excited about witnessing and imaging her first eclipse!
A few days after the eclipse, I sent her an email to ask her how she did with her photography and she told me she got completely clouded out. After some further explanation, I learned that because she lived in the path, she had planned a solar eclipse observing party at her house with about 60 guests. Ouch! So not only did she miss her first eclipse, this plan, although well-meaning, was a huge mistake that also ruined the chances for many other first-timers to observe the eclipse.
Anyone living in the path in northwestern Missouri in 2017 should not have been at their house on eclipse day. The movement and location of this weather system would have been predictable days in advance. The best option would have been to drive to southeastern Missouri the day before the eclipse.
The moral of the story for anyone living in the path in 2024 is that on eclipse day, your priority is to see the eclipse. So, the fact that your house lies within the path is meaningless. You, like everyone else who will drive to the path, should plan for alternative observing sites from which you can choose a final site based on the current weather systems.
If you are lucky and the weather is predicted to be good at your house on eclipse day, that’s convenient for you, but if you have to travel away from your house for eclipse day, so be it. DO NOT plan a party at your house for eclipse day. You cannot be obligated to be a host or hostess at your house.
Think of choosing an eclipse observing site like balancing three priorities on a three-seat seesaw. The No. 1 consideration is always weather, followed by what will be the totality duration, followed by what are the logistics of getting to the site and utilizing the site.
Imaging the progression of Baily’s beads requires clear skies, good focus and, precise timing. The observing site was Madisonville, Tennessee. Visit here for a detailed YouTube video discussing photography of Baily’s beads.
I’d like to paraphrase a statement I heard Fred Espenak say: “It’s better to see a short totality than to be clouded out of a long totality.” You can visit Fred’s website here.
Weather patterns and the 2024 eclipse path
In the U.S., at the beginning of April, any region along the path of the eclipse is at risk for poor weather. And weather fronts in the U.S. most often move from West to East, which is in the direction of the path. And weather fronts can often have a slight cant to the northeast, which could make the weather front track right along the path.
Jay Anderson, who runs the website Eclipsophile, is an expert eclipse meteorologist that does brilliant work consolidating data to make the percentage of cloud cover predictions along the paths of eclipses. But remember these are predictions based on climatology, so even an area that is predicted to be cloud-free 80% of the time still has a 20% chance of having cloud cover.
The 2024 path cloud cover risk as predicted by Jay Anderson. The circles and labels were added by Telepun for clarity. Visit Jay’s website for a 2024 TSE Climate Study here.
Months before the eclipse, you need to choose an internet weather website that provides current weather fronts, such as NOAA’S Weather Prediction Center, and also weather models that show the predicted movement of the weather fronts, such as AccuWeather Professional. Knowing the predicted location of a weather front at 72, 48, and 24 hours into the future will allow you to choose an observing site on eclipse day that has the best chance of having a cloud-free sky.
What should you do if you live in the path?
If you live in the path, you certainly can consider your house your primary observing site. But then you have to plan for a minimum of two alternative observing sites along the path; one observing site to the northeast of your house and another site to the southwest of your house.
Why and how far away? Your goal is to be in a bubble of dry high pressure on eclipse day. You want to monitor approaching weather fronts starting about 72 hours in advance of eclipse day. Since dry cold fronts advance at an average speed of 20 to 25 mph, and moist warm fronts advance at about 10 to 15 mph, your job is to assess what weather system will be at your house on eclipse day.
If it appears that you will be unlucky with unstable weather predicted to arrive at your house on ellipse day, you need to consider your options. One option is to drive northeastward in the path, trying to stay within a high-pressure bubble for eclipse day. Or stated another way; attempt to stay ahead of an approaching unstable weather front. Another option is to drive southwestward in the path through unstable weather, to get to the other side, to position yourself in an approaching high-pressure bubble for eclipse day.
Since you need about four or five hours of clear conditions to set up your gear and then observe and photograph an eclipse, you need these alternative observing sites to be between 100 and 150 miles from your house. Just consider the math: If an unstable weather front is advancing towards you from the west at 20 mph and you position yourself 150 miles east of that front, you have a chance of a clear sky for seven and a half hours. Looking at the advancing weather fronts, doing the math, and moving in a western direction is also a possibility.
There are many variables with the speed and direction of moving weather fronts so ALL decisions are dependent on your location, your alternative observing sites, and the behavior of the approaching weather fronts 48 to 72 hours before eclipse day. Use the predictive weather models on the internet to help you.
Figure 9. Hypothetical weather map 72 hours before the eclipse. You live somewhere in the path; what will you do? Background satellite image (3/21/21) cropped from the AccuWeather RealVue product can be found here. Eclipse path estimated. Associated surface analysis overlaid by Telepun (not precise).
Hypothetical observing site plan and using the Solar Eclipse Timer app to help you
Let’s pretend that you are one of the lucky folks that live in Carbondale, Illinois, the site of the cross of the 2017 and 2024 paths. The cross of these eclipses is the subject of another AccuWeather article about the saros cycle which can be found here.
Your house is your primary observing site and you are planning four alternative sites along the path. Two are positioned within 300 miles to the northeast and two are positioned within 300 miles to the southwest. You plan road trips to visit the two closest sites, but with the distant sites, you will plan only by internet map analysis.
Site No. 1 is your house in Carbondale. The other sites are pre-planned alternative observing sites. You will choose the site most likely to have clear skies on eclipse day. Visit Xavier’s interactive eclipse map site here.
The Solar Eclipse Timer app helps you prepare your alternative observing sites because it has a “Save Eclipse” function. After you have purchased and loaded the 2024 eclipse data set, you can calculate contact times anywhere along the path. So you can now geolocate at your house, look at the resulting contact times, the totality duration and then you can save this data about your home on your mobile device as a unique eclipse observing site by giving it a file name.
Your home is now one of your potential observing sites and the file you create will automatically store the coordinates, contact times, totality duration and it has additional fields where other information can be typed in. This ‘saved eclipse’ observation site is stored in the app and the data can easily be accessed and the data loaded back into the timers.
When the app is set up to time an eclipse (left image), the Save Eclipse button begins the file saving functionality. The Eclipse Data icon brings up your list of saved observing sites. The image on the right shows the file for your home and the date displayed is the day you first saved the data.
Important data is automatically saved and there are multiple extra fields where you can enter other site information. All saved files can have the coordinates loaded into the main timer with one tap of a button.
The benefit of this function is fully realized if you make an actual physical visit to a potential observing site. Once at the site, you would geolocate and the app will use the device’s GPS coordinates to calculate the contact times. You load the contact times and then use ‘Save Eclipse’ and give that alternative observation site a file name.
For the distant alternative sites that you don’t want to visit, you view the potential sites on internet eclipse maps, get the GPS coordinates and then enter those coordinates manually into the app on the GPS Data Screen. The app will calculate the contact times for that site and once again you give that site a unique file name and it is saved in the app.
The image on the left shows file names for two close proximity sites that you visit and geolocate at the site. The image on the right shows two additional sites that are further away which are planned for by using internet maps and manually entering the coordinates into the app.
Everything I just discussed regards using the app for pre-planning observing sites. When doing site visits, if you happen to stop anywhere along the path, just geolocate where you stopped and the app will instantly calculate new contact times for you. As long as your device has the correct time zone and the GPS is working, you will get the correct contact times.
On eclipse day, if you decide to observe at a completely new position, just geolocate, load the new contact times and the app will announce count downs to the contact times and talk you through the eclipse. Even if you are racing to avoid clouds and stop somewhere just minutes before totality, geolocate and load the contact times and the app will proceed with the upcoming count downs and announcements from the point in the eclipse where you started the app. The app does not need to start the process prior to first contact.
If your travels take you across time zones, be certain that your mobile device adjusts properly so your device clock matches the contact times published for the local time of the observing site. It can be confusing if your device differs by an hour compared to other observers at the same site. For my detailed YouTube video discussing timing the 2024 eclipse click here.
The 2024 total solar eclipse will be a spectacular eclipse to witness. A totality duration that is over 4 minutes is a special thing. The path encompasses many big cities and therefore a large number of people. But living in the path does not assure you of seeing the eclipse because the weather in April can be unsettled. You should have a plan to avoid unstable weather fronts. You should not plan an eclipse observing party at your house. Do not let living in the path ruin your eclipse day.
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