Steve Pellarin with sun-safe glassesAstronomy instructor Steven Pellarin says a total solar eclipse like the one coming April 8 to south Essex County is a one-in-a-lifetime experience not to be missed: with the proper eye protection.

Essex County will experience a total solar eclipse April 8 for the first time in centuries. Here’s what you need to know

For the first time in more than 200 years, a total solar eclipse will be visible in Essex County, an event one astronomer calls “once in a lifetime.”

On April 8 at around 1:58 p.m., as the moon moves between the Earth and the sun, temperatures may drop, and the sky will darken with just a thin sliver of sunlight visible.

“It's really spectacular,” said astronomy instructor Steven Pellarin, vice-president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Windsor Centre. “I’ve been to four eclipses, and I can’t get enough. I’m willing to travel to go and find these things in different places in the world because it’s just the freakiest thing you’ve ever seen when you experience it.”

What exactly is an eclipse?

Each month the moon moves around the Earth in its orbit, and being lit by the sun at different angles, appears to us as different phases. Typically, when the moon gets between the Earth and the sun, it’s either above or below the Earth and casts a shadow. But during an eclipse, the moon is tilted in its orbit, Pellarin explained.

“So an eclipse happens when the moon’s shadow lands on the surface of the Earth so that it lines up almost perfectly from its orbit 300,000 km away,” he said. “That happens usually twice a year.

“Two parts of the shadow hit the earth. There’s a wider shadow — that’s a partial shadow because there is some sunlight that gets into the bottom of the moon and blocks out some sunlight. But the top of the sun’s light gets into that part of the shadow. The same thing happens on the other side.”

For a total eclipse, which will be visible in some areas of Essex County this year, there will be a cone of shadow that’s completely dark, Pellarin said. When that hits the surface of the earth, that’s when you’ll see the black disk in the sky.

“So you have to be standing inside the moon shadow, the darkest part of the shadow, to actually be able to see the total eclipse,” he said.

Pellarin said along with the darkening skies, you may notice a few other things, like the wind picking up, and shadows on the ground may appear sharper as the sun’s light will be very narrow.

“You’ll notice that the animals will start to behave strangely because they sense something is happening,” he said. “This has happened in every eclipse I’ve been to. As the eclipse approaches, the sky will start to darken. And if you’re in totality, it’ll get dark enough that the planets will start to appear. The brighter stars will start to appear in total during the maximum part of the eclipse.”

How to safely view the eclipse

If you plan to take in the eclipse, it’s important to ensure you have the proper eye gear to be able to look at the sun without causing damage to your eyes.

“It’s like trying to look up at the sun without an eclipse going on. You have lenses inside your eyes that act just like magnifying glasses,” Pellarin explained.

“Magnifying glasses concentrate light and make it very intense. You can burn paper with it, things like that, and that happens with your own eyes. You have lenses that concentrate the light on the back where all the nerves and the sensors are that let you see. And obviously, you don’t want to burn them.”

So, you will need some sort of eye protection, such as solar eclipse glasses or a welding mask.

“They block out a very, very large portion of the light that’s coming in. So only a very small amount gets to your eye in and can’t do damage,” Pellarin said.

He recommends looking down at the ground while putting your glasses on, looking up at the eclipse, and then looking back down to remove them to avoid any potential eye damage.

It is also important to look for glasses that have the ISO certification that confirms they meet the Transmission Requirements of ISO filters for direct observation of the sun.

Where to see the eclipse

A line running from southwest to northeast across Essex County will demarcate the zones of total and partial eclipse.

The communities of Harrow, Colchester, Kingsville, Leamington, Tilbury, and Wheatley, along with Point Pelee, Pelee Island, Hillman Marsh, and Rondeau Park are south of the line and will be the only local areas to experience the total eclipse.

“What you will see is that as the moon crosses in front of the disk of the sun is the sun’s outer atmosphere,” Pellarin said. “And it’ll be shimmering like a silk curtain fluttering in the wind changing shape. And it’s kind of silvery-white, very beautiful. It’s the only time that astronomers can study the outer atmosphere of the sun. Because otherwise, the sun is just so blindingly bright, it blocks our view of that.”

All other areas, including Windsor, will not see a total eclipse, but instead 99.9 per cent coverage, Pellarin said, which is why it’s important to have protective glasses on hand.

While it will be very close to a total eclipse, it will not be quite as spectacular.

“If at all possible, people really should try to get into the zone of totality,” Pellarin said. “It is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime event and totally worth the extra drive to get under the umbral shadow path.”

There are several events hosted by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Windsor Centre in areas within the line of totality including at Point Pelee, Colchester Beach, and John R. Park Homestead for people to share the stellar experience.

Attendees will have the chance to look through solar telescopes as well to get an up-close look at the sun’s activity.

“The sun is very active right now,” Pellarin said. “It’s undergoing lots of storms on its surface. And that causes lots of eruptions. So, we’re going to see long plasma flames sticking out from the edge beyond the moon.”

The eclipse is expected to begin at about 1:58 p.m. with the start of totality beginning closer to 3:13 p.m., but that timing will differ depending on where you are. If you’re planning on attending one of the viewing events, Pellarin said, it’s best to arrive early as roads are expected to be congested and there will likely be line-ups.

If you’re looking to learn more, he will be speaking at free talks leading up to the eclipse. The first will be held on Monday, March 18, at the Fogolar Furlan Club of Windsor at 7:30 p.m.

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