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Why everyone is so excited about the total solar eclipse coming to Maine on April 8


A total solar eclipse is coming to Maine on April 8, 2024. By most accounts, it’s a spectacular celestial event that you won’t want to miss.

A large swath of the state will be in the path of totality, which stretches from the southwestern U.S. to the Northeast, starting in Texas and finishing its American journey in Houlton, Maine. The moon will completely eclipse the sun for about three and a half minutes. The sky will darken, the temperature will drop and, if the weather is clear, viewers will be able to see the corona, or the outer atmosphere of the sun.

Why the total solar eclipse is such a big deal

If you haven’t booked accommodations to stay in the path of totality yet, you are probably too late. Hotels and vacation rentals are booked from Jackman to Houlton, as even small towns expect a big tourist boost in the weekend leading up to the April 8 event.

Here’s what you can expect when the solar eclipse traverses through the state.

What is a total solar eclipse, and why is it so rare?

A total solar eclipse happens when the moon completely covers the sun, casting a shadow on the Earth.

“It’s the ultimate awe experience, a total solar eclipse of the sun,” said Larry Berz, a Maine educator and astronomer based in Aroostook County.

It is an incredibly unique and rare event to witness. The moon orbits the Earth every 28.5 days, but we don’t get an eclipse every month.

“The moon is at a five-degree inclination with respect to the plane of our planet toward the sun. So because of that five-degree inclination, we are not getting that alignment of the moon, Earth and the Sun every month,” said Nikita Saini, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate in astronomy at the University of Maine.

Because of that five-degree tilt, Saini said a total solar eclipse only happens about every 18 months or so. And, because the earth is rotating, it doesn’t traverse the same path too often.

Plus, more than 70% of the Earth’s surface is ocean. “So most of the time solar eclipses are happening, they just go over the ocean and they never cross the land,” Saini said.

So for any given place on Earth, you’re only likely to see a total solar eclipse about once every 100 years.

What can I expect to see during a total solar eclipse?

“Total solar eclipses are one of the most dramatic things you will ever see in all of nature,” said Shawn Laatsch, director of the Versant Power Astronomy Center and Maynard Jordan Planetarium at the University of Maine at Orono. “This is really a whole-body experience.

“I tell folks that the first time you experience a total solar eclipse, you will understand why ancient people feared these things. Because they really are that dramatic. Many people are brought to tears. It's just one of the most spectacular things in all of nature.”

NPR Science Correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce said it’s the celestial event to see, if you get the chance. She covered the 2017 total solar eclipse, which was the first one she ever saw.

“A total solar eclipse just affects everything,” Greenfieldboyce said. “It affects the light, it affects the way the air feels that affects the animals, it's just a multi-sensory kind of event. And you're sort of plunged into it. It goes from partial eclipse, partial eclipse, partial eclipse, boom! Suddenly you're like in this different world.”

As the moon starts to eclipse the sun, you’ll begin to see a partial eclipse while wearing your eclipse glasses. You’ll start to notice changes in your environment: shadows become sharper and you may see little crescents projecting on the ground through the trees. The sky begins to grow darker and the temperature drops, and it will feel like dusk. If you’re in a remote area, you may notice animals acting like it’s nighttime.

Then, if you’re up high enough or have a clear and wide view, you’ll see a shadow rushing toward you from the west. A total solar eclipse always travels from west to east because the Earth and moon rotate counterclockwise. Then, just before totality, you’ll see the sliver of remaining sun sparking like a ring.

Then, totality. This is when you can take your glasses off and safely look up at the sun, as it is fully eclipsed. You’ll see the sun’s corona, a fiery ring around a dark center. It’s the only time you will ever see the sun’s outer atmosphere.

“It looks like an organism. It looks alive,” Berz said of the corona.

Depending on how close you are to the center of the path of totality, the spectacle will last around three and a half minutes or less.

“The difference between seeing a partial [eclipse] and a total [eclipse] is the difference between seeing a lightning bug and getting hit by lightning.”
Shawn Laatsch, director, Versant Power Astronomy Center and Maynard Jordan Planetarium

“Totality is its own world. It's its own experience,” Greenfieldboyce said. “Only in the region of totality can you see the sun completely obscured, remove your glasses and just look up at this unearthly, white glowing ring … and in the center where the sun should be, there’s a black hole. It's like someone just punched a hole in space in the daylight sky, and it's just black. And meanwhile, everything around you changes, like it gets colder, like the nighttime insects start up, the birds are roosting in the trees. It gets dark, the colors of sunset or sunrise are just all around you on the edges. You can see stars coming out in the day, and it just, it feels unearthly.”

Laatsch urges eclipse viewers to get as close to the center of totality as possible, for the longest viewing experience. He also says to make sure you are in the path of totality, not even five miles outside of it, as you will only see a partial eclipse.

“The difference between seeing a partial [eclipse] and a total [eclipse] is the difference between seeing a lightning bug and getting hit by lightning,” Laatsch said.

What happens if the weather is bad?

It’s nearly impossible to predict the weather for an early April day in Maine. It could be sunny and beautiful, it could snow, it could be cloudy. We just don’t know.

The short of it: if the sky is not clear, you won’t be able to see the eclipse itself. You won’t see the corona of the sun. Basically, you will just see dark clouds.

But, Laatsch said, you will still experience some changes in your environment.

“If there's cloud cover, it's going to be completely dark, like night for those couple minutes, right in the middle of the day,” Laatsch said.

He said the clouds will make it even darker than it would be on a clear day. You’ll also notice the temperature drop and animals acting strange.

Why are solar eclipses scientifically significant?

A total solar eclipse is the only time the sun’s corona is observable.

“Because we're not seeing it that often. We don't know too much about it,” Saini said.

The corona is the sun’s outer atmosphere — it’s the ring of light surrounding the moon when it eclipses the sun. Scientists are still learning about how the corona changes over time, what influences its shape and temperature and its impacts on space weather and how it influences Earth.

Saini said a total solar eclipse also helps scientists discover new planets.

“Imagine we have a distant star [instead of the sun]. And instead of the moon, we have a planet going in front of that star,” Sainai said. “Now, if we're in exactly the line of sight, we should be able to see a dip in light from that star. And that helps us out tell if there was a planet going in front of that star. And from that we can guess the size of the planet.”

Laatsch said there have also been some significant scientific discoveries during total solar eclipses.

“We first discovered in the 1860s the element helium from the Greek word Helios, meaning sun. And in 1919, a total solar eclipse was used to prove Einstein's theory of relativity,” Laatsch said.

Laatsch and Saini are participating in a national citizen science project for the April 8 total solar eclipse. They are training local Mainers to use telescopes to capture images of the sun’s corona along the path of totality. It’s part of the Continental-America Telescopic Eclipse experiment, a nationwide research project led by Southwest Research Institute.

Teams will be stationed in Jackman, Millinocket and Houlton to capture images. The research team will then use the photos to create an hourlong video of the eclipse traveling across the nation. And data gathered will be shared across national organizations participating in the project.

Where exactly will the eclipse go in Maine?

The path of totality will traverse parts of Somerset, Penobscot, and Aroostook counties, hitting several towns and large swaths of Baxter State Park. Jackman, Millinocket, and Houlton are all at the center of totality, meaning these locations will experience totality for the longest — three minutes and 28 seconds to be exact.

The total solar eclipse will enter the state in the west at 3:28 p.m. and exit the state, and country, at 3:35 p.m. in Houlton. Here is a list of events planned for the day across Maine.

Has there been a solar eclipse in Maine before?

A total solar eclipse passed through Maine in 1963. Priscilla Flanagan was 13 at the time, living on a farm in Clinton, Maine. It was a sunny July afternoon, and she remembers standing in the field while the skies slowly grew dark.

“The horses went nuts, they were racing around, and they all ended up over by the barn because normally we would let them in as it got dark,” Flanagan said. “It was kind of an eerie feeling. When it got to the darkest point, it was a beautiful, early afternoon … and you could see stars. It was as if you were in the total darkness of night.”

Peter Ballou was 21 and living in Massachusetts. He and a few friends drove to Maine and climbed Sugarloaf Mountain to watch the eclipse.

“When you're on top of a mountain, you see this incredible shadow rushing toward you,” Ballou said. “It felt like a jet plane [flying over you].”

Ballou recently discovered that it only lasted 27 seconds where he viewed it. The total solar eclipse only lasted about a minute at center of totality that year.

How do I stay safe?

You need eye protection. Solar eclipse glasses are your best bet. Some people use DIY methods like a pinhole projector box, which projects the image of the eclipse through a tiny hole.

Never look directly at the sun without eye protection. You must wear your solar eclipse glasses when it’s a partial solar eclipse. Only when the moon fully eclipses the sun, during totality, can you safely remove your glasses and look at the eclipse.

Maine officials are also warning visitors to be safe during mud season, urging drivers to stay on paved roads and not pull off on the side of the road. The Maine Department of Transportation warns drivers to prepare for a high volume of traffic.

Baxter State Park has issued a notice that there is no access to Katahdin or the Traveler Range on April 8, and no vehicle access to the park. All Maine state park campgrounds are closed for camping in April.

Why is there so much hype around a total solar eclipse?

Most people who witness a total solar eclipse will say it is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some people are moved to tears. Crowds gasp and scream as totality sets in. Groups blast “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and sing along. Some people chase eclipses across the world. Others notice a spiritual awakening. At the most basic level, it’s a beautiful sight in the sky.

“To be in totality, a total solar eclipse, is for you encounter a unique moment where you reconsider as much as you want to, as deeply as you want to. And it's precious. It’s such a precious thing,” Berz said. “And what a privilege to be living in Maine in the 21st century, at this unique moment, where you can decide to enjoy that encounter.”

Scientists say another total solar eclipse won’t pass through Maine until 2079. So, Berz says, don’t miss this momentous opportunity.

“For that brief moment in the shadow of the moon, you're going to realize that you're on a planet, and how precious it is to be on a living planet,” Berz said. “Philosophers have been juggling [what it means to be part of the universe] for many centuries. But it's only during a total solar eclipse that you will have that encounter. Good luck. Clear skies.”