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The edge of night 

Next month's solar eclipse won't be total in Arkansas, but it still will be a spectacle to behold.

click to enlarge FOR ECLIPSE VIEWING: The Central Arkansas Astronomical Society says do not look at the sun even when it it is totally eclipsed by the moon's shadow.
  • FOR ECLIPSE VIEWING: The Central Arkansas Astronomical Society says do not look at the sun even when it it is totally eclipsed by the moon's shadow.

On Aug. 21, Arkansas and most of the rest of the continental U.S. will bear witness to one of the solar system's greatest light (or absence of) shows: a solar eclipse, with the roughly 70-mile-wide "path of totality" — in which the sun is completely covered by the moon, turning day into night — stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. It's the first coast-to-coast eclipse in the U.S. since 1918.

Though the path of totality will just barely skirt the state, the vast shadow of the moon passing over St. Louis and Nashville on its way to the sea, almost 90 percent of the sun's light will be blocked out for viewers in Arkansas, with only a sliver of the sun's surface visible. In Little Rock, the eclipse will begin at 11:47 a.m., reach peak darkness at 1:18 p.m. and end at 2:46 p.m.

There are a number of events planned around the eclipse in Arkansas, and the path of totality is easily within driving distance of most parts of the state. Darrell Heath, outreach coordinator for the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society, said that because the event will be the first total eclipse in the U.S. in 38 years, it's a big deal even for those who aren't normally geeks.

"It's one of nature's grandest spectacles that you'll ever see," he said. "It can induce wonder, awe and even fear in people who see it, which is rare among the jaded public these days. It still has that capability to induce a powerful wallop to anyone who sees it."

Heath, who plans to travel to Nebraska to witness the total eclipse, said those in the path of totality will see complete darkness, along with the sun's corona, the wispy outer gasses of the sun, radiating out from the black disk of the covering moon. "Moments before totality, you see the reduction in light, you see strange shadow effects," Heath said. "If you look around where the light is coming in through the tree leaves, the gaps between the leaves will act as pinhole projectors and can produce images of the eclipse on the ground or the side of the house." Some of those effects will be visible in Arkansas as well, though the light outside will appear dusk-like during what will be a partial eclipse.

click to enlarge ae_feature1-2-c8370026c784024d.jpg

If Arkansans want to travel to the path of totality, Heath said, they should start making their plans now. Most hotels and even campsites within the path are already booked, Heath said, but those hoping to view it should try to be in place at least 24 hours before the eclipse. According to a NASA website on the eclipse, eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov, 12 million Americans live within the 70-mile-wide path of totality, but that number could more than double on Aug. 21 as visitors pour in, clogging roads with traffic. "Don't wait until the day-of to try and get there," Heath said, "because traffic is just going to be a living, breathing nightmare."

Even though the light from the sun will be lessened significantly during the eclipse, Heath said viewers should never look at any stage of the eclipse with the naked eye, as even a sliver of the sun is bright enough to cause damage to the eye. Normal sunglasses will offer no protection either, Heath said. There are, however, ways to watch safely, including "eclipse glasses" with a special Mylar film that blocks the harmful rays of the sun, homemade pinhole projectors, or "Shade 14" welders' goggles or welding helmet lenses, which can be purchased online or through welding supply houses.

"If you go online you can find instructions on how to make your own little pinhole projection boxes, but when you do that, the sun is just going to be a tiny little dot," Heath said. "I really recommend getting the glasses, or getting the welder's glass to look at it." The Central Arkansas Astronomical Society is currently selling eclipse glasses for $3 at their website, caasastro.org.

"There's a lot of places online where you can get the eclipse glasses," Heath said. "You can get them from our website, and there are other companies out there. But you need to act quick, because people are ordering these like hotcakes. They're hard to keep in stock right now."

One place to get a pair of eclipse glasses for free is through the Central Arkansas Library System, which is hosting eclipse-themed events Aug. 21, including an eclipse watch party from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. that day in Riverfront Park. There also will be an eclipse watch party at CALS' Roosevelt Thompson Library, 38 Rahling Circle.

Shani Atwood, who helps run the CALS telescope lending program, said that eclipse glasses are available free to those who attend eclipse events at CALS, part of a push to distribute 2 million free pairs to educators and libraries. Atwood said a solar eclipse fascinates people because it is so rare. She noted there are "eclipse chasers" who travel all over the globe just to catch a few minutes in the path of an eclipse. It's a natural wonder that most people have never experienced, she said.

"It's the kind of thing that in the past, people thought the world was ending," she said, "so just being able to witness that firsthand is something maybe people take for granted or have trouble comprehending until they actually see it in person, and actually see that's the way the universe works, and that's the way planetary mechanics works."

If you're interested in witnessing a total eclipse, the nearest city to Central Arkansas that will experience totality is Cape Girardeau, Mo., which is 292 miles from Little Rock. If you can't make it this year, however, be patient. On April 8, 2024, Little Rock will be in the path of totality for another eclipse, with the eclipse visible across Arkansas on a northeastern arc from De Queen to Pocahontas.

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