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Fargo-Moorhead will be in path of total solar eclipse in 2099

MOORHEAD — Juan Cabanela was keeping close tabs on the weather forecast in Missouri, where he plans to be on Monday, Aug. 21.

"I've never seen a total solar eclipse in my entire life. I've wanted to see one since I was a little kid," said the Minnesota State University Moorhead astronomer whose professional interest is the structure of galaxies.

Like millions of other eclipse tourists, he's headed for what's known as the "path of totality" cutting a swath from Oregon through Nebraska and Missouri on its way to South Carolina. This is where the shadow of the moon is the darkest and day will turn to night for a few minutes.

"What I'm excited for with the solar eclipse, to be blunt, is to have my mind blown," Cabanela said. "The back of your brain does not expect the sky to suddenly turn dark."

Part of the reason he has to make the long drive to Missouri, where he plans to conduct an experiment and do a live webcast, is because Fargo-Moorhead is 410 miles away from the path of totality and only a partial eclipse will be visible if it's not cloudy. Here, the moon will appear to cover just 80 percent of the sun.

The other reason for the trip is he likely won't be around for the next total solar eclipse over Fargo-Moorhead in 2099, as he would be 130 years old. According to NASA data interpreted by Xavier Jubier, a French eclipse chaser, the next such total eclipse over Fargo-Moorhead will begin at 10:37 a.m. Monday, Sept. 14, 2099, ending four minutes and five seconds later. It would be the first total eclipse over Fargo-Moorhead in more than four centuries.

Rare circumstances

A total solar eclipse is not in itself a very rare event; on average, one happens somewhere in the world every 18 months. But it seems rare because it doesn't occur over the same spot very often and there is a lot of the world that's hard to reach, such as, say, Antarctica or the middle of the ocean.

Monday's eclipse will be especially easy to reach for many Americans because it will cross the entire United States, the only country it will appear over, and it will happen in the middle of a summer day, according to Timothy Young, an astronomer who specializes in supernovae at the University of North Dakota.

Like Cabanela, he will be doing a live webcast during the eclipse, but from Casper, Wyo.

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes in front of the sun and the shadow falls on the Earth during the daytime. A total eclipse happens in the darkest shadow directly below the moon, called an umbra, while a partial eclipse happens in the lighter shadow farther from the center, called a penumbra. The path of totality is the path of the umbra across the Earth.

Young noted that the position of the sun and the moon relative to the Earth repeats every 29.5 days — we see this on Earth as the moon waxing and waning in one full cycle — yet an eclipse doesn't happen every month. This is because the plane of the moon's orbit around Earth is 5 degrees off from the plane of Earth's orbit around the sun, so when the moon and the sun does line up, very often the shadow doesn't fall on the Earth but in space.

That half a day at the end of the cycle also means that even when everything does line up for an eclipse, a slightly different part of the Earth will be in daylight, so the shadow wouldn't very often fall on the same location.

A simulation of every total solar eclipse over several thousand years by Belgian astronomer Jean Meeus has shown that, on average, the time between total eclipses in any location on Earth is 375 years. But that average fails to convey the vast differences in timeframe. The shortest time is less than 18 months at a place on the island of New Guinea north of Australia. The longest is 4,558 years.

In the same way, the average time between total eclipses in Fargo-Moorhead is 339 years, according to Jubier's website, but the shortest time between total eclipses is 38 years while the longest is 1,026 years.

The last time a total eclipse occurred here was 1:05 p.m. Monday, April 10, 1679, when Europeans were just beginning to explore the Upper Midwest and the Sioux people, famed for hunting bison on the prairie, lived around the Great Lakes.

Awesome spectacle

These kinds of calculations are possible because the moon's and the Earth's orbits are very stable, changing little over thousands of years. While that might seem to take much of the mystery out of eclipses, Cabanela disagrees.

During the total solar eclipse of 1715, English astronomer Edmond Halley of Halley's Comet fame described the sky shifting to a very deep blue, and observers have described the same shift in other eclipses, according to Cabanela.

It likely has to do with sunlight scattering in the atmosphere as it travels from beyond the moon's shadow, he said. He's bringing a spectrometer, a device that breaks down visible light by color, to test this out, he said.

Dean Johnson, an amateur astronomer from southeast Minnesota, recalled his awe at seeing the Feb. 26, 1979, total solar eclipse that passed through Winnipeg. On the ground, birds dive-bombed snowbanks and squirrels scrambled around like mad. In the sky, the moon shadow edged across the sun until covering it completely, leaving a halo of sun fire flickering into space that lasted for two minutes, 17 seconds.

"The only thing that I have seen that was as profound was when I watched my children being born," Johnson wrote in his local newspaper, the Bluff Country Reader.

For many, the idea of daylight disappearing so suddenly must also be very appealing, said Cabanela.

"How many times in your life do you get to see the sun go out?" he said. "It's a phenomenon people have heard of but few people have seen. So that's one of those things where you suddenly start thinking, 'Hey, I don't live that far from the path of totality. I can do this.'"

Eclipse chasers

Many people share Cabanela's desire.

At the visitors bureau in St. Joseph, Mo., smack dab on the path of totality, the flood of emails and phone calls asking about eclipse events began 18 months ago, according to Beth Carmichael, an official there.

"We're expecting anywhere between 50,000 and 500,000 people. That's what eclipse experts have told us," she said. "Our population is 76,000, and we will easily double that and probably triple or quadruple that amount."

The way she described preparations for the eclipse sounds like the city getting ready for both a festival and a disaster.

Businesses have stocked up on eclipse-viewing glasses and commemorative T-shirts, and museums have scheduled special programs for eclipse tourists. But they've also been told to plan to protect assets from thieves and to cope if cell phones and credit card readers stop working. Law enforcement and other emergency responders will be on alert.

Most states on the path of totality are steeling themselves for the onslaught as well. Oregon is calling out the National Guard to help with traffic control. Idaho airports are asking pilots to be extra careful with so many aircraft flying in. South Carolina warns residents and visitors alike to stock up on food, water and medicine. North Carolina tells drivers to get paper maps in case the GPS navigators on their phones stop working should cell phone networks be overwhelmed.

Cabanela said having made preparations to go to Missouri and, if it's too cloudy there, Nebraska, he's experienced first hand just how big a deal eclipse tourism is. His advice to those thinking about the 2099 Fargo-Moorhead eclipse is to be prepared for a huge crowd and very expensive hotel rooms.

ON THE WEB: Young's live webcast will be available at sems.und.edu. Cabanela, who had to divert from his preferred viewing location, is uncertain about a live webcast, but if there is one it will be at https://www.facebook.com/msumphysics.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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