History in the Heavens

It is a rare day that I would say this, but on the early afternoon of August 21, 2017, I really hope you are not hangin’ out in Grand-Bates. In fact, I hope you’re not even in South City. If you are, you’ll only get the briefest of looks at that afternoon’s history in the heavens. Around 1:18 that afternoon, a total solar eclipse will occur, its epicenter over south St. Louis County. It will be the first time St. Louis has witnessed a total eclipse since 1442, a full 332 years before there was a St. Louis! The next one over St. Louis won’t happen until 2505 (although one in 2024, centered over Carbondale, Illinois, will come within 50 miles!).

Total solar eclipse
Total solar eclipse in 1999 in France via Luc Viatour.

Partial eclipses – where only a portion of the sun’s disc is covered – are relatively common, most recently happening in October 2014. We can only imagine the first residents of Grand-Bates – looking through smoked shards of glass in lieu of the fancy eclipse-viewing sunglasses we have now – gathering in their backyards or Carondelet Park to take a gander at the 1932 partial eclipse that crossed over our then-young neighborhood. But a total eclipse is a rarity unrivaled. For an event that has at some point touched nearly every place on earth, remarkably few people have had the opportunity to witness a total solar eclipse. Only two have touched any part of the United States in the last forty years – in 1979 over the Pacific Northwest, and in 1991 over Hawaii.

Partial solar eclipse on October 23, 2014 via Joshua Tree National Park in California.

During the afternoon of August 21, you’ll see, feel, and hear something extraordinary as the moon completely blocks out the sun. Shadows sharpen, colors fade around you, and birds stop singing. The temperature drops, moisture settles out of the air, and the stars come out at midday. The sun itself becomes a black disc with a ghostly, vaporous aura. You’ll see giant plumes of hydrogen gas erupting on the sun’s surface as twinkles of brightness glitter on its edges (this is sunlight peeking through valleys on the Moon, a phenomenon known as “Baily beads”).

Seeing It on August 21, 2017
Grand-Bates sits near the edge of the August 21, 2017 eclipse’s “path of totality,” where the moon completely blocks out the sun. To see this once in a lifetime event for longer than a few seconds, you’ll need to head further south. The total eclipse will cover part of West County, and all of South County, but its center is near St. Clair, Missouri, where the total eclipse will last about 2 minutes and 40 seconds. The closer you are to the center, the longer you’ll get to see the eclipse. It is a tight window of just a few minutes, so don’t be late – at 1:10 the total eclipse happens in Columbia, Missouri, at 1:18 it hits St. Louis, and by 1:20 it is passing to Carbondale, Illinois. If you are outside of the total eclipse’s narrow 80-mile band (say, in downtown St. Louis), you’ll only see a partial eclipse, and the sun’s light will still be blindingly and dangerously bright.

This map put out by the St. Louis Astronomical Society shows the total eclipse’s path and duration: http://www.stlouiseclipse2017.org/images/frontpage/TSE2017_Missouri_large.png

But here’s where the news gets even better on August 21, 2017 – by early afternoon, you’ll be done witnessing one of the solar system’s most spectacular astronomical events, with plenty of time to head back to the ‘hood to fire up the grill or enjoy a cold one on the porch.

Celestial wonders and a wonderful neighborhood… I’d call that a good afternoon.

Written by Andrew Wanko