You’re standing in the yard with your children. The temperature has just dropped 20 degrees, and it’s pitch dark. Not normal nighttime dark — your kids have seen that before — but completely black, as though all the light is gone from the world. Because it has.
The Great American Eclipse is coming Aug. 21. For the first time in American history, a total solar eclipse will be seen only in the United States. It is also the first total solar eclipse since 1918 to move from coast to coast. At 10:15 a.m. Pacific time, totality begins outside Depoe Bay, Ore.; at 2:49 p.m. Eastern time, it ends near McClellanville, S.C. In the time between, the eclipse will darken 12 states: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina. Eighty percent of the U.S. population lives within 600 miles of the eclipse path.
In short, if you don’t live in what scientists call “the totality band,” you need to get there. The rest of North America will see a partial solar eclipse, but astronomer Jay M. Pasachoff says settling for a partial eclipse when you could see a total one is like “standing outside an opera house and saying that you have seen the opera; in both cases, you have missed the main event.” Stepping one millimeter outside totality changes everything.
On “a scale of 1-10, a partial eclipse is maybe a 6 and a total eclipse is a million,” said Fred Espenak, an astrophysicist with NASA.
During a total solar eclipse, the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, casting its shadow on the ground. Normally, the moon reflects sunbeams off its surface. That’s why darkness during a total solar eclipse is like nothing you’ve experienced before: The reflected light is gone and all other light is blocked out. This is what causes the temperature to drop so suddenly — and it’s also what keeps birds from singing, makes larger animals lie down and sends squirrels into a frenzy: As the moon slides over the sun, animals think it’s nightfall. And when the sun is completely covered, they become afraid.
But your children won’t be frightened because you’re going to prepare them.
Start by making sure your kids know the difference between a total solar eclipse and an annular one. The last annular solar eclipse in the United States was in 2012, so older children may think they’ve seen this before. But an annular eclipse is different — with those, the moon is far enough from the Earth that we can still see part of the sun around it.
If your kids have seen an annular eclipse, they already know about eye protection. When you were little, your teachers probably taught you to make a pinprick camera with notebook paper. Now there’s a safer way to stare at the sun, using eclipse glasses. Regular sunglasses won’t work, but these cardboard shades have thin solar filters as lenses. They are available online starting around $1 a pair. NASA recommends four manufacturers: Rainbow Symphony, American Paper Optics, Thousand Oaks Optical and TSE 17.
Once you’ve told your kids what’s going on and made sure they won’t be blinded, it’s time to build their anticipation. A celestial event of this magnitude brings plenty of educational opportunities for parents to share with children.
If you have a family pet, start with zoology. Keep an eye on your pet for a few days before and after, and track his movements. When does he seem to sense the eclipse coming?
There also are opportunities for lessons in civics, business and language arts.
Hopkinsville, Ky. — the point of greatest eclipse — is expecting 50,000 to 100,000 tourists for the event. The town’s population is less than 33,000. Have kids think through how a town that size gets ready: Where will everyone eat? Where will they sleep? The eclipse is on a Monday, so with all that extra traffic, how will children in Hopkinsville get to school? (Secret answer: School’s canceled.)
If you live in the band, forget Hopkinsville. How is your home town getting ready? Have your kids interview the mayor or talk to local entrepreneurs to see how much extra business they’re expecting. Design a brochure or website that explains why tourists should watch the eclipse in your town instead of somewhere else. Explain the concept of business differentiation: What makes your city different from others across the band?
Advanced readers may enjoy Mark Twain’s novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” in which a time traveler uses his knowledge of eclipses to escape being burned at the stake. Children who are interested in history can learn about how the Chaldeans discovered eclipse cycles in the 700s B.C., or how a total solar eclipse in 585 B.C. ended a war between the Lydians and Medes.
On the day of the eclipse, as you get ready to view it, make solar eclipse sundaes: Stack one scoop of lemon sherbet, one scoop of chocolate ice cream and one scoop of Blue Moon ice cream in a clear glass. Then visit NASA’s official event site to watch the world’s first live-stream of a total solar eclipse from near-space. After seeing the eclipse move over other people’s yards, grab your jacket, grab your children’s hands and step into your own to take it in.
Terena Bell is a freelance journalist writing most often on tech, entertainment, public affairs, ADHD and the upcoming 2017 total solar eclipse. A Kentucky native, she is based in New York. She tweets @TerenaBell.
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