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When the Sun suddenly vanishes for a few minutes

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On Aug. 21, Bay Area residents will see the Moon take a “bite” out of the Sun during a total solar eclipse. (Courtesy image)
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One week from tomorrow, the Moon will slide between the Earth and the Sun. For people in a narrow path that stretches from the coast of Oregon to the beaches of South Carolina, the alignment will be just right, and the Moon will appear to totally cover the Sun, plunging those areas into a few minutes of darkness near noon.

Unfortunately, for those of us in the Bay Area, the cosmic alignment isn’t quite as good. It won’t get dark like in Oregon, but if you take appropriate precautions to protect your eyes, you will see the Moon take a huge “bite” out of the Sun.

I’ve seen three total solar eclipses, and they are magical. For the few minutes when the Moon totally covers the Sun, the sky darkens enough to see stars, the temperature cools and the wind dies down. Birds stop chirping, thinking nighttime has come.

During those minutes of “totality,” wisps of the Sun’s faint outer atmosphere are visible, surrounding the dark disk of the Moon in a ghostly halo. It is a beautiful, haunting sight, one that is well worth traveling thousands of miles to see.

The Aug. 21 eclipse will only be visible from the United States. An estimated 12 million people live within the path of totality; 200 million live within a day’s drive. Eclipse chasers could form one of the largest temporary mass migrations of people to see a natural event in history.

And that could lead to major gridlock on city and county roads, especially wherever it’s cloudy. Sadly, many chasers may end up with tales of traffic gridlock as they tried to find clear skies instead of eclipse memories.

At maximum in San Francisco, the Sun will look like the third crescent on either side of the corona in the middle. (Courtesy composite image)

Few large cities are in the path of totality. Mostly, it will pass over small towns with limited resources to deal with the expected influx of eclipse chasers. For example, normally 200 people call Glendo, Wyo., home. But on Aug. 21, officials expect 50,000 people to be there. The town is soliciting GoFundMe donations to help pay for port-a-potties and trash services around the eclipse.

Other towns are celebrating the eclipse. At the “Moonstock” festival in Carterville, Ill., Ozzy Osbourne will sing “Bark at the Moon” during totality. The Nashville Symphony will play an outdoor concert at their local ballpark during the eclipse.

If you don’t already have a place to stay in the path of totality, be warned: Rooms are sold out in all 12 states, as are nearly all campgrounds. NASA TV and the Exploratorium will livestream the eclipse.

In the Bay Area, the Moon will begin to take a chunk out of the Sun at 9:01 a.m. By 10:15 a.m., the Moon will cover 76 percent of the Sun — the maximum visible here. The eclipse will end at 11:37 a.m.

Normally, common sense keeps us from looking at the Sun for more than a split second. But during a partial eclipse, it’s tempting to look longer. Don’t! Just as a magnifying glass can focus sunlight to burn leaves, the lens in your eye can focus the sunlight and burn your retina, permanently damaging your eye.

There are only three safe ways to view a partial solar eclipse. Look through a No. 14 welders glass (or higher, but not lower, numbers). Or use inexpensive eclipse glasses or viewers, i.e., paper frames that contain special materials that will protect your eyes. They’re being sold at the Exploratorium store or online at sites such as Thousand Oaks Optical or Rainbow Symphony. Check your local library — many have eclipse glasses to hand out.

Or make a pinhole projector. Using a pin, make a tiny hole in a piece of cardboard or thick paper. Hold a second piece of cardboard (either white or with white paper taped to it) under the one with the pinhole. Angle the pinhole until you see a small image of the Sun on the white paper.

Any other viewer, e.g., looking through exposed X-ray film, is not safe for your eyes.

Early peoples were terrified by the sudden mid-day disappearance of the Sun. Today, it’s still awe-inspiring. Here’s hoping for a cloudless — and fogless — Aug. 21 in the Bay Area, so everyone can safely watch the Sun almost disappear.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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