2024 Total Solar Eclipse: Two Perspectives

By Karl Philippoff and Francis Tarasiewicz

Mount Washington, New Hampshire (Francis)

I got into meteorology in part, because of how the weather can, even if briefly, bring us humans together as a captive audience to its destructive majesty. From casual conversations about clouds to catastrophic storms, the atmosphere serves as the great equalizer.

On Monday April 8th, I realized that forces far outside our planet’s troposphere can fill this same role. For a few short minutes that afternoon the typical buzz of the modern world paused. Millions gathered, gawked, cried, and shared an experience that has timelessly captivated humans and the natural world for millennia. I’ve built it up enough, I am of course, talking about the total solar eclipse. The story of the eclipse has evolved from exciting mythical tales of creatures of all sizes swallowing up our closest star to a more rational and reductionist story of the Moon’s brief obscuration of the Sun. As someone trained in logic and science, there is nothing that could have prepared me for the spiritual experience of riding the edge of totality.

My experience with the Great American Eclipse of 2024 began as every wintertime shift on the summit does. A bumpy, low speed adventure in our snow tractor. Despite our Wednesday shift change being only five days away from a spectacular celestial event, I found myself brooding and frustrated. You see, the summit was forecast to be a mere 29 miles from the path of totality. At 99.97% (yes it is that precise) we were set to miss glimpses of the Sun’s atmosphere, Bailey’s Beads, and the 360 degree sunrise. The ride up was full of my journey through the five stages of grief for this event. At the base, anger about missing it prevailed, but by the time the snowcat lumbered its way up to the summit, I was firmly in the acceptance phase. Sure, we would miss out on totality, but hey we had a shot at seeing the Moon’s shadow race across the northern sky. So long as the weather cooperated.

Statistically speaking, only 8% of April 8ths throughout the observatory’s history featured fog or cloud free conditions.

Climatology was firmly against us.

The next few days were choc full of educational programs where I had to sell the beauty of an eclipse to among the harshest of audiences, middle school students. As the education observer, and as I am sure most educators can agree, there is nothing more satisfying than receiving actual questions from students! I delivered these programs knowing that our odds on the summit of even seeing a partial eclipse were quite low.

Then, something changed. Miraculously, weather models began to paint an increasingly favorable picture for eclipse viewing across New England. Instead of the climatologically favored cloudy spells, models converged on an area of high pressure building in behind a behemoth of a storm system that, during the previous week, delivered 82 hours of snow that piled up to over 24 inches on the summit. Excitement was building. Mercifully, the forecast not only held, but continued to improve, there was to be a layer of very dry air that would evaporate even the most stubborn upslope clouds that notoriously hang around the summit.

Then, after months of planning, educational programs, internet buzz, and countdowns it was the day of the eclipse. On the summit, a brilliant sunrise illuminated a 130 mile view to the horizon. This was as good as it gets. The day wasn’t only exciting for your narrator, it was a summative event for our resident photographer, Ryan Knapp. “As an astrophotographer this is my Avengers endgame” he said as he began the laborious final system check of his assortment of cameras and camera gear. His goal: to document a time-lapse of the eclipse itself and of the shadow of totality as it raced across the northern sky.

Observers on the summit of Mount Washington

Ryan (right) and I readying for the eclipse on the summit of Mount Washington.

At 2:18pm, the lower right-hand side of sun began to develop a slight dent, marking first contact and the beginning of the eclipse. Through eclipse glasses held over my goggles and corrective lenses the sight began to fill me with an excitement previously only elicited by weather. The dimple became a “Pac-Man” shaped chunk, and then a semi-circle. Keep in mind, winds at the time were sustained around 45 miles per hour and temperatures were just below freezing. Tough times to be a paper pair of eclipse glasses. As the moon covered the sun Ryan briefed us on what we should start looking out for. “Shadows should be getting more faint.” “The sky should start to dim.” “Okay, colors should start to wash…” Suddenly, as the moon eclipsed more than 95 percent of the sun, colors, which for my entire life I have taken for granted, began to wash out. A strange monochrome grayish-red took the place of most colors as I removed my goggles. To my surprise, I did not have to squint even with the whiteness of snow on the ground below. It was as if sunset had come four hours early. An almost horrifying darkness began to swallow the skies above Green Mountains to the northwest. The shadow had arrived! The Moon’s umbra raced across the northern horizon at 1500 mph, eventually moving northeast but lingering just long enough to make it into my 3pm observational remark.


Image on Mount Washington during the eclipse.

Image taken at 3:30pm during the eclipse.

Teary eyed, I looked around at our special guests who were in different stages of awe and processing. It wasn’t totality, but it is a sacred space in my memory. It was the day where the horizon that I’ve spent years looking at from the summit, ceased making sense.

The eclipse ended as soon as it started, and as I resumed the mundane task of scrolling through social media I was greeted by hundreds of photos of “the shot”. People online touted their capture of the Sun’s Corona, which while impressive, became almost repetitive. Maybe it’s just me coping with missing totality, but I would argue that the image of a sky divided into day and night from the summit was perhaps even more impressive.

That was my experience of the eclipse from the summit; the next part of this blog details Karl’s weird and wonderful journey to totality as he traversed the southern US.

Hot Springs, Arkansas (Karl)

My odyssey to see the total eclipse began several months ago. My sister, who works for NASA in Maryland, had been invited to an event at Lyndon B. Johnson State Park outside of Stonewall, Texas in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio and east of Austin. She was going to be situated within the path of totality, with a much longer total duration than during the last total solar eclipse which traversed the United States in 2017. From a climatological perspective (Fig. 1) it also seemed like it was going to be much more favorable to see the eclipse from that location than being in northern New Hampshire, so I bought a plane ticket to Houston, Texas and booked an Airbnb with my parents in a land-bound RV located about an hour and a half away from the state park because it was much cheaper than anything situated in the actual path of totality.

As time proceeded closer to the event, the forecast was looking less and less favorable for cloud-free viewing, at least at the state park, so late in the afternoon on the day before the eclipse, I hatched a plan to give us the best possible window of opportunity to see it, though unfortunately my sister could not be as flexible with her plans. It looked like low-level clouds would blot out the views of the eclipse over much of Texas, but models kept hinting at a relatively clear area, with only a small percentage of high-level clouds over central Arkansas at approximately the right time (Fig.2). We had already journeyed from New Jersey to Texas to see the eclipse, so what was driving a few hundred more miles to see totality for the last time in the contiguous United States until August 23rd, 2044?

cloud chart

Figure 1: Average April cloud fraction as derived from satellite measurements over a 20 year period by NASA’s Aqua satellite between 2000 and 2020. Lyndon B. Johnson State Park is located approximately one-third of the way between Uvalde and Dallas in Texas towards the left of the figure, one of, if the lowest, average cloud fractions in the United States.

interactive eclipse map, New York Times

Figure 2: Screenshot taken from New York Times Interactive eclipse map displaying the cloud fractions forecasted by the National Blend of Models (NBM) for the afternoon of April 8th. Comparing this with other model data, most of the clouds over Texas (bottom left of the image) at this time were low-level clouds, while over Arkansas (within the circle), much of the forecasted clouds were thinner, higher-level clouds through the sun would still be (and was!) visible.

Later that day, I spent a few hours listening to my sister present to state park visitors about the eclipse, and also took part in some eclipse activities including picturing what we thought the eclipse might look like the next day (Fig.3). We stopped at a grocery store on our way back to our Airbnb to get food and provisions for the extended journey the next day, as well several prepackaged coffees to aid in staying awake while driving. I was unsure about the traffic situation, so I thought that leaving at around 2AM that morning and avoiding traveling through major cities would hopefully be sufficient.

eclipse drawings

Figure 3: All of our artistic interpretations of what the Sun’s corona would appear like during the eclipse made by tracing circular cutout of the ‘Moon’ with chalk and using our fingers. Mine is middle picture in the image.

Leaving at 2AM, was, I’m sure, the highlight of the trip for everyone involved! But the roads were quite empty for the remainder of the night, and we were making good time, only stopping once for gas in Atlanta, TX, though under ominous low-level gray clouds. As we kept proceeding north through Texarkana, TX and into western Arkansas, the low-level clouds began to break up and the sun became visible! Our initial stopping point was at a park in Dierks, AR where we had breakfast, but after only about an hour, the low-level clouds that we had driven through on the way up had made their way north. The time was around 1030AM and we still had some time to get into position.

We made our way north and east to a family park outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas and managed to get one of the last parking spots, roughly 9 hours of driving and 500 miles from where we had begun our day. We then walked over to a grassy area overlooking a nearby airport and got to enjoy a few minutes of relaxation before the show started at 1231PM. Short of a few mid-level clouds that briefly moved in and did not substantially dim the solar disc, we had a great view of the Moon slowly obscuring more and more of the Sun as it moved from the bottom right to the top left of the Sun. While the eclipse glasses worked great for seeing the eclipse with my own eyes, it definitely was not quite spectacular as captured using my cell phone, though definitely not for lack of trying. It was incredible to see even a few minutes before and after totality how amazingly bright the sun was, with the appearance of a cloudy day until the last few minutes before and after totality when the sun was nearly completely obscured.

And then, of course, the main event! At 1349, we entered totality for about 4 minutes to whoops and cheers from the rest of the people who had gathered in the park. Instantly the sun’s corona became visible, appearing as a large halo seemingly around the Moon (Fig.4), as well as Venus and Jupiter and a few of the brighter stars . Darkness descended over us, but the colors of the clouds to our southeast appeared as if it was about to be sunset… in the middle of the day (Fig. 5). The sun’s corona was arrestingly beautiful surrounding the orb of the Moon and shooting out in all directions and captured my attention for most of those 4 minutes. I felt temperature drop slightly, though not precipitously so, but I did not personally see or hear any other unusual animal behavior (e.g. chirping crickets or otherwise) during, before, or even after totality. Immediately after totality we got to see Baily’s Beads very briefly as the Sun shown through some of the lower valleys of the lunar disc as seen from Earth before the solar disc slowly started to fill in once again. It was like slowly coming back to reality. Shortly after totality, one of the people who had set up a telescope with a solar filter in the park noticed that he could see a solar flare and allowed us to see it as well.

eclipse corona

Figure 4: Image taken from wikipedia derived from a photographer based in Hot Springs, AR at the time of totality. Shortly after totality, we could see a solar flare emanating from the about the 8 o’clock position of the Sun.

Figure 5: Image taken during totality showing the sunset-ish appearance of the southeastern sky over the adjacent airport. During this short time period, also noticed the appearance of the night lights at the airport.

Below (Figure 7), you’ll also find an mage of the Earth taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), one of my sister’s primary missions, at 1859 UTC (1359 CDT) 7 minutes after totality passed at our location in Hot Springs, AR showing the Moon’s shadow over Earth’s surface (notice all the cloud cover over Texas).

Figure 7: Image of the Earth taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

As the day trended toward the typical brightness of an early spring day in the southern United States, it erased the shadowy pall of the eclipse from our senses, but not from our memories. And it unfortunately did not erase the 400 mile, 6.5 hour drive back to Houston through a few thunderstorms for our flight out the early the next morning either.

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