Utahns will need to head to Idaho, Wyoming to catch 2017 solar eclipse

Thursday , May 18, 2017 - 5:15 AM

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

Think of it as the biggest tailgate party in the entire universe.

OK, so that might be a stretch. But it’s easily the biggest in our solar system.

On Aug. 21, millions of Americans across the country will position themselves along an imaginary curving line — stretching from Oregon to South Carolina — and turn their eyes skyward as the moon passes in front of the sun. It’s the long-awaited 2017 total solar eclipse, nicknamed “America’s Eclipse” because it takes place exclusively in the continental United States.

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“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for just about everybody,” said Ron Vanderhule, president of the Ogden Astronomical Society. “It’s so totally unique, you’ll want to see it.”

John Sohl, professor of physics at Weber State University, insists it’s hard to overestimate the emotional impact of a total eclipse of the sun.

“When you talk to people who have witnessed totality, in some cases it’s literally been a life-changing event,” he said.

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Sohl knows a man who, over the years, has been to five or six of them around the world.

“It was so emotionally moving that he’s dedicated his life to catching every eclipse he can,” Sohl said. “I’ve talked to other people who’ve been to solar eclipses, and they say that during totality they’ve looked around and people around them are in tears.”

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Unlike the relatively common lunar eclipses, which occur about twice a year and can be seen by anyone with a view of the moon, solar eclipses can only be viewed along the narrow 70-mile-wide path where the moon casts its shadow onto the earth.

“And that shadow’s often in an awkward place, like the middle of the ocean, or scurrying across the Arctic or Antarctic,” Sohl said.

According to Eclipse2017.org, the upcoming event is the first total solar eclipse on U.S. soil since 1991, the first on the mainland since 1979, and the first to sweep across the entire country since 1918. The next time you’ll get to see a total solar eclipse in the United States is April 8, 2024.

And Utah will experience a total eclipse firsthand on Aug 12, 2045.

For the 2017 eclipse, the moon’s shadow will move west to east, making landfall in Oregon and traveling at roughly 16,000 miles per hour across large parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina before heading back out to sea. It will also touch the corners of four other states — Kansas, Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina.

That cross-country trip will take all of about 91 minutes.

Utah is not in the path of totality (those in the Ogden area will see the moon covering 93 percent of the sun), so the closest places to view a completely darkened sun are southern Idaho and western Wyoming.

And those two areas, astronomers agree, will likely be crowded with celestial rubberneckers.

“It’s going to be a zoo no matter where you go,” said Brad Carroll, a retired physics professor from Weber State University. “You can’t even get a hotel in any of these places at this point. … Well, maybe you can, if you’re willing to go to a Motel 6 for $800 a night.”

Seth Jarvis, director of Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City, says he hasn’t heard of it happening in Idaho or Wyoming, but he does know some unscrupulous motel and hotel owners in Oregon have been taking advantage of eclipse watchers who were smart enough to make their reservations back before rates skyrocketed. Now, he says, these early birds are getting notices saying “So sorry, we’re under new management” or “We had our computer crash,” and are told they need to rebook their rooms.

“‘And oh, by the way,’ they’re being told, ‘our rates have quadrupled,” Jarvis said.

For this reason, Jarvis — who made his hotel reservation for Casper, Wyoming, back in late 2015 — has been a little nervous about whether he still has a place to stay.

“Up in Casper, where I’ll be, rooms are now over $1,000 a night,” he said. “Now, that’s not what I paid, but I have to keep calling them every couple of weeks to make sure I’ve still got a reservation. They’re tired of hearing from me.”

Indeed, Carroll says he had a reservation, but a few months back was informed there had been a mistake.

“I had a room in a place reserved, but they said they overbooked and kicked me out,” he said.

Sohl says at this point finding a room along the path of totality will be incredibly expensive — if available at all. If you don’t already have hotel accommodations, “you probably aren’t going to get any.”

Of course, there’s always camping — which is still available in many areas but rapidly filling up — or crashing with some long-lost relative along the path of totality.

“A lot of people in Rexburg are finding out they’ve got a lot of relatives they didn’t know about,” Jarvis said.

And places like Rexburg, Idaho — population 25,484 — are bracing for what could be record crowds. Scott Johnson, director of economic development for Rexburg City, says they’ve been working with state and national agencies to try to understand the issues they’ll be facing.

“I’ll tell you, we’re trying diligently to cancel the eclipse,” Johnson joked. “There’s just a lot of preparation, a lot of things to think about.”

The figures his office is hearing are a half-million people descending on eastern Idaho and western Wyoming.

“All sorts of numbers are being thrown around, but we’re playing conservative,” Johnson said. “We’re looking at 40,000 people we’re expecting in Rexburg.”

Still, he admits, that figure could be way off as “no one has any idea.”

Jarvis says officials are throwing around terms like “driveshed” in relation to the upcoming eclipse. Similar to a watershed, where all rivers flow into one place, a driveshed involves a place where people plan to drive their vehicles to see the solar eclipse.

Much of Colorado will be driving north on Interstate 25 to see the eclipse, according to Jarvis. And there’s a small state park north of Cheyenne, Wyoming that has become the driveshed for these observers.

“Imagine if 100,000 people all decided to go to Pineview,” he said.

The one thing keeping many astronomy buffs up nights is that they’ve made these years-long plans to go to, say, Jackson, Wyoming, for the eclipse and don’t know what the weather situation will be like. 

“What if it’s cloudy?” Vanderhule asked. “What if you make all these big plans, and there’s a thunderstorm that day?”

Jarvis says that’s an essential truth of astronomy — it teaches patience and humility. He recommends developing a “zen-like attitude” toward the 2017 eclipse.

“The weather is under no obligation to give you the skies you want, no matter how rare the event,” he said.

Vanderhule says he’s “halfway thinking” about watching the weather the night before, and just driving that day to clear skies along the path of totality. And for those who can’t get lodging, he recommends that as an alternative.

“You just need to set aside two or three hours and drive to a sunny spot,” he said. “Then you go home and mow the lawn.”

But the experts warn that roads surrounding the path of totality could become a parking lot in the hours leading up to the eclipse. Jarvis knows people who think they’re going to get up that Monday morning in August and drive up to see the eclipse that day.

“They’re not going to get within a hundred miles of the path of totality if they’re not already up there,” he said.

If you’re headed anywhere near Rexburg, Johnson suggests your arrive at least a day in advance. He says Idaho officials have already been anticipating a crush of traffic, but to make matters worse there’s a $95 million road construction project starting on Interstate 15 this summer.

“In 2017, several sections of Interstate 15 will be resurfaced and numerous bridges repaired,” according to a notice on the Idaho Transportation Department’s website. “Multiple projects will be under way along a 140-mile section of I-15.”

Sohl says he made his plans for the eclipse about five years ago, but just to be safe he also has a Plan B and even a Plan C when it comes to viewing sites.

Jarvis says he’s been thwarted three times from seeing past eclipses.

“This is my fourth effort at seeing a total solar eclipse, and I have to believe that the fourth time will work,” he said.

Jarvis missed one eclipse due to weather, one because of a scheduling conflict, and a third due to a vehicle breakdown.

“I was supposed to drive with a couple of other Hansen Planetarium workers in 1979 to Montana, and my VW bug gave up the ghost as I was leaving Bountiful,” he recalls.

The summer’s eclipse is so anticipated at the Clark Planetarium that as far back as 15 years ago some staff members made the event a condition of their employment.

“They said, ‘Thank you for hiring me, but it is conditional on that week of August 2017 I’m on vacation,” Jarvis said. “What we did is we had to have this horrifying exercise to decide who got the time off. We didn’t want to make it random, so we said, ‘Who’s the youngest here, and has the most chances ahead of them to see an eclipse?’”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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