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Eclipse Viewers Guide

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On Aug. 21, the Twin Counties will witness a near-total eclipse of the sun. Learn how you can safely view this historic celestial event.

By Brian Funk, Editor

If you were a Viking viewing a solar eclipse in olden days, you might think the great wolf Fenrir was swallowing the sun, signaling the beginning of Ragnarok, the end of the world.

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Centuries later, if you were of a Puritan sect, you might have confessed your sins and begged forgiveness as the world plunged into darkness.

Eclipses not only blot out the sun, but sometimes overshadow our common sense — but it’s not a superstition we left behind in the Dark Ages.

As recently as 1995, soldiers in Cambodia fired their guns at the sky to drive away the “dragon” they believed was consuming the sun, according to a collection of eclipse-related hysteria and folklore compiled by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The cause of an eclipse is natural, but no less fascinating and awe-inspiring than the myths.

On Aug. 21, we’ll experience the first total eclipse visible all across North America in nearly a century.

Because we’re not in the direct path in the Twin Counties, we’ll see about 90 percent of the sun obscured by the moon — still a rare treat.

School kids will be looking skyward (and staying late) on Monday to study the science behind the eclipse, and stores are cashing in by selling eclipse glasses — required eyewear unless you want to burn out your retinas.

No doubt, someone will be playing Bonnie Tyler’s ‘80s hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart” or Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album as the sky goes dark. Maybe Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun?”

But what’s causing this astronomical event?

How can you safely view it?

Where can you find glasses?

Are you sure about that wolf?

What if it’s cloudy?

Relax.

We’re here to shed some light on this dark day.

Solar Science

NASA has been the best resource for eclipse-related information, creating a handy 35-page guide to the eclipse (see the NASA downloads page HERE).

On Monday, all of North America and parts of South America, Europe and Africa will experience the eclipse. NASA reports that 12.2 million Americans living within the path of totality, a 70-mile band stretching across 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina, will see a total eclipse.

It’s being billed as the “Great American Eclipse.”

Southwest Virginia is about 400 miles from the path of totality, so we will see a partial — though near-total — eclipse.

“The moon will pass between the earth and the sun on a west to east trajectory and completely eclipse the sun first in Lincoln Beach, Ore. at 10:16 a.m. PDT and last in Charleston, S.C. at 2:48 p.m. EDT,” according to NASA. “This is the first time in 100 years that a total eclipse has crossed the span of the continent.”

In the Twin Counties, the eclipse will begin at 1:11 p.m., with the maximum eclipse reached at 2:39 p.m. and completed at 4:01 p.m. It will last about 2 hours and 50 minutes.

Some local schools are staying open late on Monday so students can view the event with teachers. Carroll County, for example, will not end the school day until 4:05 p.m.

So, how does an eclipse work?

“The moon moves in an orbit around the Earth, which in itself orbits the sun,” NASA’s eclipse guide explains. “Even though the sun is in fact many times bigger than the moon, due to the vast difference between where these two celestial bodies are located, they appear to be the roughly the same size when viewed from Earth.

“When the moon’s trajectory overlaps the sun’s position in relation to a given point on Earth, we experience either a partial or total eclipse, a phenomenon that generally takes place over a three-hour period,” as the moon’s shadow is cast on the earth.

The sun’s outer atmosphere (called the solar corona) glows around the moon when it is blocking the sun. It’s this glow that can cause eye damage.

Safe Viewing

“Eclipses are inspiring natural occurrences that can and should be admired,” NASA said. “However, certain precautions need to be taken when viewing them. In general, staring at the sun’s surface for too long can cause damage to the eye, but during an eclipse, the surrounding darkness sways the natural tendency to divert one’s gaze, thereby allowing even more of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation to impact the retina.”

Even when 99 percent of the sun’s surface is obscured during the partial phases of an eclipse, the remaining crescent of sun is still intense enough to cause retinal burn, according to NASA. “However, a total solar eclipse can safely be viewed with the naked eye, but only for the brief minute or two in which the sun is completely obscured by the moon.”

Since that won’t happen here, you’ll need eclipse glasses.

You can purchase them online, but NASA cautions buyers to “be careful to only get products that comply with the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard for filters for direct viewing of the sun. It’s not safe to view the eclipse with regular sunglasses.”

Carroll County Public Schools posted some safe viewing tips on its Facebook page: “No one should look directly at the sun during a solar eclipse because the very bright light can burn the light-sensitive tissue in the back of your eye, called your retina. Without notice, permanent eye damage can happen in just a few seconds of looking at the sun during an eclipse.

“Since the retina does not have any pain fibers you can’t feel the burn; although, irreversible eye damage has occurred.”

The Center for Disease Control warns that “exposing your eyes to the sun without proper eye protection during a solar eclipse can cause ‘eclipse blindness’ or retinal burns, also known as solar retinopathy.”

The damage can be temporary or permanent and can take a few hours to a few days after viewing the solar eclipse to realize the damage that has occurred. Symptoms include loss of central vision (solar retinopathy), distorted vision and altered color vision.

“If you notice symptoms after viewing a solar eclipse, seek treatment from an eye care professional,” the CDC cautions.

Unless you want the sun to be the last thing you ever see — and keep in mind, there will still be one more episode of this season of “Game of Thrones” after the eclipse — you will need to buy glasses.

Time.com’s eclipse viewing guide has a list of retailers selling the glasses, but it’s far from inclusive. Local stores like Red Hill General Store in Hillsville have reported having them for sale, and Time.com recommends Lowe’s, but the local store had sold out as of press time for this article.

NASA cautions buyers not to fall for cheap knock-offs. Other places selling verified eclipse glasses includes 7-Eleven, Best Buy, Circle K, Love’s Travel Shops, Lowe’s, Pilot/Flying J, Toys “R” Us and Walmart, according to Time.com.

Walmart told Time.com that eclipse glasses cost $1 at any location that still has them in stock. Walmart is also selling “Get Eclipsed” guidebooks that include eclipse glasses for $3.47.

Other Ways to Watch

What if it’s cloudy, or you simply can’t go outside to watch in person?

Several networks will be live-streaming on the internet, and you can watch at places such as wdbj7.com/eclipse or nasa.gov/eclipselive.

The CDC says pinhole projections is the safest and most inexpensive way of watching a solar eclipse. “This helps you avoid looking directly at the eclipse by using a projected image,” the agency said.

This do-it-yourself project includes making a pinhole in a cardboard paper with the sun on one side and a piece of paper to project the image on the other side. Keep in mind not to look through the pinhole at the sun.

For more information on making a pinhole viewer, visit cdc.gov/features/solar-eclipse-safety/.

If you’re using a telescope, NASA cautions to make certain the appropriate filter is in place before pointing it at the sun.

If you miss this one, you’ll have to wait a while: the next total solar eclipse viewable in North America won’t occur till 2024.

Eclipse Myths & Superstitions

How must the people of the ancient world viewed an eclipse?

An angry god’s wrath, perhaps, or the dying of the celestial fire.

Surely, in the modern age, we’ve put all that behind us.

Right?

In Baja, California, in 1991, astronomers were surprised by the weeping and wailing of hotel staff, who were terrified by the onset of the darkness.

In 2010, during an eclipse, people stayed home out of fear. Restaurants and hotels saw a dip in business and some schools closed when students didn’t show up.

That venerable repository of knowledge, The Old Farmer’s Almanac, has collected myths, folklore and superstitions related to eclipses, which offers a fascinating look at what people believed was happening when the sun suddenly disappeared from the sky.

“For many, a total solar eclipse generated fear,” the Almanac reported. “After all, the sun is a constant in our lives — and integral to our well-being. We truly couldn’t live without the sun’s light.”

For ancient peoples, eclipses were a portent of the end of the world, or that a great evil would follow. “Myths often involved a beast trying to destroy the sun with the fate of earth hanging in the balance — or, a sun god becoming angry, sad or sick,” the Almanac said.

Here are some of the myths compiled by the Old Farmer’s Almanac:

• Fear led Chippewa people to shoot flaming arrows into the sky to try to rekindle the Sun. Tribes in Peru did the same for a different reason; they hoped to scare off a beast that was attacking the sun.

• In Norse culture, an evil enchanter, Loki, was put into chains by the gods. Loki got revenge by creating wolflike giants, one of which swallowed the sun — thereby causing an eclipse. (Another of the giant wolves chased the Moon, trying to eat it.)

• In India, the demon spirit Rahu steals and consumes the nectar of immortality but is beheaded before he can swallow it. His immortal head flies into the heavens. The Sun and Moon had alerted the gods to his theft, so he takes revenge on them: When Rahu swallows an orb, we have an eclipse — but the orb returns to view because Rahu has no body. In Indonesia and Polynesia, Rahu consumes the Sun — but burns his tongue doing so and spits it out.

• In Transylvanian folklore, an eclipse stems from the angry Sun turning away and covering herself with darkness, in response to men’s bad behavior.

• To the Australian Aborigines, the Sun was seen as a woman who carries a torch. The Moon, by contrast, was regarded as male. Because of the association of the lunar cycle with the female menstrual cycle, the Moon was linked with fertility. A solar eclipse was interpreted as the Moon-man uniting with the Sun-woman.

• West Africans of Benin suggest that the Sun and Moon are very busy, but when they do get together, they turn off the light for privacy, resulting in an eclipse.

• The fog, dew or other precipitation resulting from an eclipse was considered dangerous, according to some myths. The Japanese thought that poison would drop from the sky and covered their wells. In Transylvania, they believed that eclipses could cause plague, as did Alaskan natives, who turned their dishes upside down and washed the affected utensils.

• Many ancient people worried that an eclipse caused pregnancy issues such as blindness, cleft lips and birthmarks. Even today, pregnant women are sometimes warned to stay inside, not eat, not carry sharp objects and not eat cooked food from prior to the eclipse.

• Modern baby blogs ask if pregnant woman should wear some sort of metal, such as a safety pin, to protect the baby. Some say that the baby superstitions date from the Aztecs, who believed that a celestial beast was biting the Sun — and the same thing would happen to a baby if the pregnant mother watched.

For more eclipse myths and superstitions, visit almanac.com/content/solar-eclipse-folklore-myths-and-superstitions.

For more information, visit eclipse2017.nasa.gov