Weather Watch

‘A poet should have been sent instead’: The total solar eclipse was hard to describe

The moon blocks out the sun during Monday’s total solar eclipse.
The moon blocks out the sun during Monday’s total solar eclipse. Special to The Tribune

A dear friend, Ben Stephens of Morro Bay, was a husband and father with a graduate degree from Cal Poly in marine biology and commercial fisheries.

He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met who never embellished anything and was blessed with a heart of gold. He left us way too early after a courageous battle with cancer. He once told me about a total eclipse he witnessed in Baja California in 1991, and I was awestruck by his story.

If you ever get a chance to see a total eclipse, you will remember it forever, he said.

With those words, I was determined to see one if I ever had the chance. Last week, I rented a minivan and drove north solo toward Salem, Oregon. My wife, Trish, my daughter, Chloe, and son, Sean, had to either teach or attend their first day of class on the day of Monday’s total solar eclipse.

My primary concern was the ever-present threat of clouds. But after checking the surface charts and models, most of Oregon was forecast to remain clear, except along the immediate coastline where low marine clouds would persist. On my journey north on Interstate 5, I encountered heavy smoke from numerous wildfires that obscured the sky, which made me a little worried. The smoke got thicker north of Ashland but slowly dissipated by the time I reached Eugene. Farther north, Salem was clear.

Since all the hotel rooms were booked months in advance, I decided to sleep at the Santiam River Rest Area along the Santiam River about 10 miles south of Salem. This location turned out to be on the centerline of the moon’s shadow path as it crossed the United States and was next to an expansive field.

As fictitious motivational speaker Matt Foley, played by Chris Farley in the famous Saturday Night Live skits, said: “I was living in a van down by the river.”

The rest stop became full with eclipse chasers by Sunday night. Despite hundreds of visitors, the semi-independent state agency, Oregon Travel Experience, kept the facility safe and extraordinarily clean. They even made sure the streetlights wouldn’t come on at the peak of the eclipse.

We all came together as strangers; parked next to me was Dave in another minivan, who traveled south from Vancouver, British Columbia, and Michael, who made the trek from Los Angeles in a white Honda S2000 roadster. I noticed that the vast majority of the cars had California license plates, but there were visitors from across the world.

As I’ve written before, stargazing sometimes can seem a little uneventful without a telescope. It takes a lot of patience.

This certainly was not case Monday. On the morning of the eclipse, the sky turned bright, and photographers quickly set up their tripods. As the moon started to obscure the sun, I could hear the crow of roosters from a farm nearby, but the buzz of honeybees went quiet as the air temperature rapidly dropped about 10 degrees.

To the west, a dark shadow of the moon’s umbra approached at approximately 2,000 mph; it resembled a dark band of clouds with heavy rain. In an instant, totality arrived, and we were all plunged into darkness as we removed our solar eclipse glasses.

To the south and north, I could see sunrise and sunset at the same time. The planet Venus could be seen. Above us, a black hole developed in the sky, and the sun’s corona shined much brighter than I ever imagined. For those two minutes of totality, the sun’s atmosphere was glorious. To me, the corona looked like strings of bright liquid-crystal white gently pulsating outward.

In the 1997 movie “Contact,” Jodie Foster’s character, astronomer Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, said there are no words to describe her experience and a poet should have been sent instead. I felt the same way.

If you didn’t make it to this month’s total solar eclipse, the next North America occurrence will transpire on April 8, 2024. That total eclipse will reach the west coast of Mexico a little south of the Baja Peninsula and travel northeastward across Mexico into Texas and across the country into Maine. The duration of totality will be over four minutes long, twice as long as this month’s event.

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About 70 percent of the electricity PG&E delivered to its customers in 2016 came from greenhouse gas-free resources like nuclear (Diablo Canyon power plant) and large hydro. An average of 32.8 percent of its electricity in 2016 came from renewable resources including solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and small hydroelectric power plants.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.

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