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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Five reasons 2024’s solar eclipse will be better than the one in 2017

    Information regarding the total solar eclipse is shown on a digital billboard as drivers make their way down a busy road in Addison, Texas, Thursday, March 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

    On Aug. 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse sliced from coast to coast across the Lower 48, darkening skies from Oregon to South Carolina. For up to 2 minutes 40 seconds, the moon extinguished the sun, leaving behind only a gaping black hole in the sky surrounded by the sun’s corona - a crownlike atmosphere. And on April 8 - just a few weeks from now - the heavens will do it again.

    Except this time, it will be better. More people will see it. It will last longer. And the eclipse itself will look more spectacular for a variety of reasons.

    It’s the last total solar eclipse visible from the United States until Aug. 23, 2044. On average, any given location experiences a total solar eclipse once every 375 years.

    Here’s why this one will be better than the last one.

    - - -

    The corona will be more dynamic

    Most importantly, the corona - the sun’s outermost layer - will be especially magnificent. The corona is made up of diaphanous, glowing plasma superheated to about 2 million degrees. It fans outward into space like the silver hairs of an angel, each strand representing the plasma contorted by the sun’s magnetic field lines.

    How wonky the corona is depends on the sun’s magnetic field, which is constantly evolving over its 11-year cycle. That’s why each eclipse is said to have its own personality.

    For the 2017 eclipse in North America, the sun was heading toward “solar minimum,” but still had three prominences - armlike appendages of magnetism and light that were visible from Earth.

    During the 2019 total solar eclipse in South America, the eclipse was comparatively dull since the magnetic field was unremarkable - but polar streamers, or lines emanating out of the sun’s north and south poles, could be seen.

    This time around, we’re reaching solar maximum. That’s when the sun has bands of interfering magnetism near its equator, and the north and south poles are about to flip. That magnetic battle zone results in the formation of many sunspots, or bruiselike discolorations that bubble up from inside the sun to its surface, almost like a lava lamp. Each one pours magnetic flux into space.

    You’ll probably see “streamers” of solar wind streaming away from the sun, and perhaps some coronal loops - loops of magnetism where the magnetic field is up to 1,000 times stronger than the sun’s ambient background field.

    - - -

    The shadow will be bigger and darker

    In 2017, the moon’s shadow traced a path up to 71.2 miles wide. On April 8, the shadow will be up to 122.6 miles wide because the Earth will be a little closer to the moon.

    That means the sky will be darker within the path of totality and, if you’re near the centerline, daylight will physically be farther away. The 360-degree sunrise phenomenon, manifest as a peachy twilight illumination of the horizon, may have slightly more dramatic hues. And the sudden nightfall will feel more like night. You’ll probably also see more stars and planets.

    Jupiter will be present to the left of the sun, with Venus - which will appear brightest - to the right. Saturn and Mars will also make appearances to the right of Venus, though they’ll be dim and probably hard to see without binoculars or a telescope.

    There’s even an outside chance you could view the comet Pons-Brooks near Jupiter (with an observing aid, not with the naked eye), but that will be even fainter than the planets. And, as the total eclipse will last only a few minutes, you might be better off taking in the overall experience rather than trying to track down hard-to-find celestial objects.

    - - -

    More people will see it

    Not only will the moon’s shadow cover more area this time, but the path of totality will also track over more major urban areas. In Texas, San Antonio and Austin will both be along the edge of the path, while Dallas will be near the center. To the north and east, the total eclipse will pass through Little Rock in Arkansas; Evansville, Indianapolis and the southeast suburbs of Fort Wayne in Indiana; Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, and the northwest suburbs of Cincinnati and Columbus in Ohio; Erie, Pa.; Buffalo and Rochester in New York; and Burlington, Vt.

    About 12 million Americans lived in the 2017 path, but 32 million live inside this year’s path of totality. About 150 million people live within 200 miles of the path - including residents of Washington, Philadelphia, New York City and Boston.

    - - -

    It will last longer

    The bigger shadow will take longer to pass over each location. The 2017 eclipse lasted up to 2 minutes 40 seconds, but this eclipse has a maximum duration of 4 minutes 28 seconds. When it comes to solar eclipses, every fleeting second spent in the moon’s shadow is precious. It’s the only time us Earth dwellers can stare up in awe at the sun’s atmosphere.

    Here’s a look at how long the eclipse will last in different cities:

    - Dallas downtown will see 3 minutes 51 seconds despite being 30 miles from the eclipse’s centerline.

    - Little Rock, on the edge of totality, gets 2 minutes 20 seconds - but a short drive to Conway, about 25 miles to the northwest, will yield 3 minutes 53 seconds of totality.

    - Carbondale, Ill., a town that was on the centerline for the 2017 eclipse, will experience 4 minutes 8 seconds of totality this time.

    - Paducah, Ky., is just two miles into the path of totality’s southeast side, and sees only about 90 seconds of totality. Driving up Interstate 24 toward Vienna, Ill., however, will earn you an extra two-plus minutes in the moon’s shadow.

    - Indianapolis will see a whopping 3 minutes 49 seconds.

    - Niagara Falls can expect just over 3½ minutes of totality.

    - - -

    Its arrival will be more dramatic

    During a solar eclipse, the moon’s shadow travels over a long, very slender path. At the beginning and end of the path, the moon’s shadow is traveling fastest. That’s because of the geometry of Earth and the movements of celestial bodies. Toward the middle, the shadow travels comparatively slowly.

    In 2017, the shadow swept ashore in Oregon moving at around 2,400 mph, but slowed to 1,850 mph by the time it crossed into Wyoming. It reached a minimum speed of 1,449 mph just northwest of Nashville before speeding up again and exiting the South Carolina coast at 1,486 mph.

    But this time, the shadow moves faster across the majority of the U.S. track. It will start in Texas at about 1,600 mph, but will be zipping along at 1,850 mph upon reaching Indianapolis. In Rochester, N.Y., the shadow will speed through at 2,359 mph; it will exit Maine at 3,041 mph.

    What does this mean? Simply that the transition from day to night along the path of totality will be just a little quicker and more dramatic. It also means the partial phase of the eclipse will be compressed a little bit.

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