We’re now less than four weeks away from the historic total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017! This will be the first total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States since February 1979 when a total eclipse swept through northern Oregon, southern Washington, into Idaho, Montana and the Canadian Prairies. Much of the Northwest dealt with clouds in the coastal and western regions as cities such as Portland fell into a post-sunrise darkness.
Well now it’s 2017 and this eclipse is in a much better month…August. While this doesn’t guarantee good weather for any location along the path of totality; convection (thunderstorms) and cloud debris can cause issues on the Plains, while marine clouds can cause problems in the Pacific Northwest for example, generally quieter conditions with the jet stream and the domination of summer time high pressure and upper-air subsidence across the continent during the late summer means more opportunity for less cloud cover and quieter conditions across more parts of the country to view the eclipse in August than, say February.
In order to assess the the most important aspect of observing an eclipse – sky conditions – the University of Idaho School of Natural Resources performed a climate analysis for the United States to determine the probability that a location will have clear skies at 10:30 am local time on August 21st. This time is picked because of the arrival of totality on the West Coast.
While clear skies would be absolutely optimal for an eclipse, ESPECIALLY totality, few to scattered cloud coverage (25-50%), while less fortunate in terms of direct solar photography and SAFE solar viewing, can still yield interesting observations leading up to and during totality. Because the umbra is quite thin, interesting atmospheric optics can occur. Although the area under totality becomes relatively dark, the light outside of the shadow can still be seen to observers. And the reflected light will appear to be twilight-like in color and glow. You could call it “eclipse twilight”. And with any cloud in the area, they will change colors or change in reflection of light as the darkness rolls over them, great for photographic and video effect. Just before totality, the sun itself will start to appear as if it’s “dying” in the final minute or two and the shadow will start to rapidly advance out of the western sky like a monster storm…except it’s not a storm 😀
In addition, regardless of scattered or no clouds, in the last min or so before (and after) totality, if you look at plain surfaces you may witness wavy motions like those in water known as shadow bands. These form as the focused, but rapidly weakening light of the sun is being distorted by the dense atmosphere of Earth. Those very near the totality path may also witness them.
This YouTube video I found some weeks ago shows both the prominent shadow bands and the “eclipse twilight” with clouds.
Now I’m a meteorologist. So when we talk about having a giant astronomical object blasting a shadow across a continent at 2000 mph and putting regions into nighttime in the middle of the day, a meteorologist is going to ask, how is this going to impact the weather?
For those at 75% percent partial eclipse and higher, the surface temperature will start to become depressed temporarily as the incoming solar radiation is reduced. This will be especially apparent for eclipses during the midday. As totality approaches, any winds may calm as a result of “fair weather convection” weakening as surface heating completely shuts down (this is where upward vertical motions produced by surface heating, leading to local winds die down).
Here’s an EXCELLENT website using a Google Map layout where you can click on a location for eclipse “contact” times (start of partial, start and end of totality, end of partial) and maximum obscuration of the solar disk (areal coverage by the moon): HERE
In a couple weeks, numerical models will START to give us some distant idea of how the weather patterns may evolve for August 21st. I’m especially interested, because my location (Lincoln, NE) WILL experience totality. Will likely head to the south side of town to experience roughly 1 min 45 seconds of it and some of the very partial eclipse before that. It would be my first total solar eclipse since I was born and raised in Seattle but that event didn’t happen there and happened 5 yrs before I was born anyways.
Stay tuned in the coming weeks as weather updates come!