The moon blocked out the sun on Monday as the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in the US in nearly a century began over the west coast, while millions of Americans looked skyward in wonder through protective glasses, telescopes and cameras.
After weeks of anticipation, the sight of the moon’s silhouette passing directly in front of the sun, blotting out all but a halo-like solar corona and causing a precipitous drop in temperature, drew whoops and cheers from onlookers gathered in Madras, Oregon.
“First contact!” someone yelled. Horns honked. Eclipse glasses were popped on to faces, all of which turned eastward to the sun.
As the sky grew dark, around 10.16am, the temperature started to drop and eclipse viewers started to shout and cheer. The most common exclamation was: “Oh my God!” A ring of light glimmered around the black moon – the long-awaited corona, finally safe to view with the naked eye.
Light returned quickly. “Come back, moon!” someone yelled. As onlookers exhaled and shook the tension out of their bodies, someone said: “I could have looked at that for another 20 minutes!”
As quickly as it came, the eclipse receded, as the umbra – the location of the total shadow – bolted across the continent at an average speed of 1,700 miles per hour. When all is said and done the “totality” will have engulfed a strip of the country occupied by 12.2 million people, joined temporarily by millions more who traveled to the 70-mile-wide eclipse path for the spectacle.
In Madras, Keeman Wong had been waiting 15 years for the moment. He first bought a solar filter as a middle schooler in Hong Kong in the 1960s, to protect his eyes during a partial eclipse. For the past 15 years, Wong, who now lives in Los Angeles, has attempted to witness a total solar eclipse – in Zimbabwe, Easter Island and China – but each attempt was foiled by weather, travel snags or state department warnings against travel to dangerous areas. He was entranced by how eclipse viewers spoke about their experiences.
“They describe it as life-changing,” he said.
This time, he let nothing get in his way. He even packed the small rectangular filter that he’d bought five decades ago.
“I got here early because I said, ‘if there’s an accident on the road, an earthquake… I’m going to be there’,” he said. “It’s worth everything.”
For Wong, the most spectacular moment was the end of the total eclipse. “I’m not religious but I think it’s something very like when God says, ‘let there be light’,” he said.
It was the first total solar eclipse visible from the mainland US in more than 38 years, and the last for another seven years when the next eclipse will cut the opposite diagonal from Texas, through the midwest and up through New York and New England.
Viewers in the narrow totality band were treated to as much as two minutes, forty seconds of utter nighttime in the middle of the day and the otherwise unimaginable spectre of a 360-degree sunset. Those in the path of the totality were able to see the normally invisible solar corona, which appeared as an enormous pale white crown spreading outward from the obscured shadow of the sun.
Those out of the direct path of the eclipse got a show too, if a far less dramatic one. In all but the tiniest corner of Maine, people in the US were able to see at least 50% of the sun’s face covered up by the passing moon. Nationwide, people also got to experience the ancillary effects of a total eclipse as well, including odd animal behavior and a pronounced temperature drop of anywhere from 3-12F.
Nasa invited casual observers to track temperature and cloud data on their phone to build an open-source map of the eclipse, the first US total eclipse of the smartphone era.
Hoping to learn more about the sun’s composition and activity, Nasa and other scientists watched and analyzed from telescopes on the ground and in orbit, the International Space Station, airplanes and scores of high-altitude balloons beaming back live video.
Citizen scientists also planned to monitor animal and plant behavior as daylight turned into twilight and the temperature dropped. Thousands of people streamed into the zoo in Nashville, Tennessee just to watch the animals’ reaction.
At the White House, Donald Trump was spotted observing the eclipse from the Blue Room Balcony with his wife, Melania, son Barron and a handful of other top administration officials. At one point, Trump gestured to other onlookers and pointed up at the sky to which at least one White House aide could be heard interjecting “don’t look”.
Disappointed skygazers in cities and towns across the country including Oakland, Chicago and New York got to experience the midday darkening sky but the sun was partially covered by clouds. “Was so hyped for the eclipse only to go outside and have it all blocked by clouds,” posted one Twitter user from Waterloo, IA where more than 90% of the sun was covered.
But other more hardcore eclipse enthusiasts had arranged to remove cloud cover from the arrangement, watching from 38,000 feet above the ground on a flight chartered specifically to track the eclipse’s arrival over the Pacific off the coast of Oregon. Dennis Cassia, a 65-year-old retired firefighter and high school science teacher who now lives in Monroe, Connecticut, was one of them.
Cassia caught his first eclipse in high school and has traveled to Africa and the Caribbean to see others throughout his life. “It was so spectacular that I kind of got the bug,” said Cassia.
But for Cassia, a total eclipse is about more than the view. He says something primal – and, in some cases, spiritual – washes over mammals as the moon obscures the sun.
“You find out, during a total eclipse, just how in tune with nature you are,” he says. “Your body tells you something isn’t right. It looks like a sunset, but the sunset is 360 degrees. You get the colors of the sunset, but it’s the whole horizon. Insects behave differently; animals behave differently. Cows go down on their haunches. Then totality hits and you’re immersed in this darkness.
“I’ve seen people get on their knees and pray,” he continues. “I’ve seen scientists cry. All of a sudden, you realize, ‘Man, I’m part of this and I have instincts that I never, ever feel. I’m part of nature.’ Why do people go around the world to chase eclipses? It’s the only event that’s going to leave you totally awestruck.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report
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