FEATURE: Preparing for Darkness

By on February 21, 2017

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Perched on a verdant mountaintop with sweeping views of where the Makassar Strait meets the Palu River, Dr. Kate Russo, Aussie eclipse expert and self-proclaimed “eclipse chaser,” stood among pitched camping tents and people staring into the sky. It was March 9, 2015, and Russo was on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi where she had ascended to a Wayu Village in the southern hills of Palu City.

She stood with villagers and visitors in the full sun as the temperature rose to 90 degrees. “The skies were clear, the sun was high up, and the atmosphere electric,” she remembered. “At first contact, [when the moon met the path of the sun] a traditional music song was played … like a single didgeridoo, which echoed down the valley.”

Just a little before 9 a.m., the lighting became odd and the birds got confused. “It was thrilling,” Russo said.

“The shadow was not as pronounced as other eclipses, but the moment of second contact was incredible. The diamond ring hung there beautifully and seemed to last a lifetime.  And then, totality.”

The crowd hooted and hollered, growing silent as the sun was totally eclipsed by the moon at 9 a.m., leaving only a crown of light on its perimeter.  “Two planets were clearly visible, although the sky did not darken too much … The light on the horizon was beautiful.” Russo was grateful the clouds had stayed away. The third contact occurred marking the end of Russo’s tenth total solar eclipse.

Great American Eclipse

On August 21 the moon will pass in between the Earth and the sun, shrouding the sun from view and casting a shadow on the planet. The path of this summer’s total eclipse will span the entire country, from coast to coast—something that hasn’t happened in almost a century. Jackson Hole is squarely situated within the 70-mile-wide path of the shadow, making the valley an even more desirable destination this summer.

Most total eclipse paths fall over uninhabited regions of the planet or over vast bodies of water. According to space.com, the eclipse will be the first time since 1776 that a total solar eclipse’s path of totality will remain wholly within the United States. Known as the “Great American Eclipse,” this summer’s eclipse is particularly rare because it will be so accessible. Its “path of totality,” known as the umbra or path of total shadow, will make landfall across 12 states in the U.S., from Oregon to South Carolina. For the lucky 12 million people living within this path, residents of Teton County among them, all they have to do is step outside and look up.

First contact with the continental U.S. will be on the coast of Oregon at 10:15 a.m. The umbral center line of the total solar eclipse will pass into Wyoming from Idaho just around 11:35 a.m., and at its longest duration over Illinois, “totality” will last a maximum of two minutes and 40.2 seconds. Its final point of contact with the U.S. will be southeast of Key Bay, South Carolina, along the Atlantic Ocean.

For the lucky people in the path of totality, an eclipse offers a once in lifetime experience, an opportunity for increased exposure—needed or not, of a location and all it has to offer. However, these momentary cosmic occurrences present certain challenges to these same communities, such as a sudden and brief influx of thousands of people and their vehicles, their accommodations and needs, and their expectations, as well as those of the locals who host them, and public safety.

Some communities hope eclipse chasers will inject local economies with a supplemental revenue source in the face of shortfalls, while other locales, mainly Jackson, don’t really need more in the way of summer tourist dollars. Locally, the hope is that the eclipse may provide the opportunity to address increasingly grave issues of traffic, congestion, and overcrowding that have diminished quality of life for residents and hampered visitor experiences. But it’s still unclear just how big of a crowd will make its way to Jackson to witness this historic event.

Fascinating history: ancient eclipses

Eclipses occur frequently with the sun, moon, and Earth. When the Earth passes between the sun and the full moon, a lunar eclipse occurs. When the moon blocks any part of the sun, a solar eclipse happens. Partial solar eclipses are far more common than total solar eclipses, which only occur every 12 to 18 months and are largely due to an astronomical coincidence.

According to Astronomy Magazine, eclipses are thanks to a cosmic quirk of geometry: the sun’s diameter is 400 times wider than the moon’s but it is also 400 times farther away, which means that when they align perfectly, the moon completely blocks the sun.

If the Earth and the moon were orbiting in the same plane, there would be two eclipses every month, one total lunar eclipse and one total solar eclipse. But the moon is orbiting a hair—five degrees—off from the ecliptic orbit, making solar eclipses far more rare and spectacular.

People have been witnessing eclipses since the beginning of mankind and they have taken on varied meanings—or no meaning—to those staring up from Earth. There’s documentation of eclipses dating back as far as 1300 B.C.

According to an article in Live Science, the earliest eclipse was described on a clay tablet in Ugarit, a port city in what is modern day northern Syria. Analysts determined that Ugarit’s eclipse darkened the sky for two minutes and seven seconds on March 5, 1223 B.C. and it is reported that Mesopotamian historians in Ugarit said the sun was “put to shame” during the eclipse.

Another eclipse in 763 B.C., during the Assyrian Empire, darkened the sky over present day Iraq for five minutes and records suggest the people linked the cosmic event with an insurrection in the city of Ashur, presently known as Qal’at Sherqat, Iraq.   

In China, at the time of an eclipse in 1302 B.C., the sun represented the emperor, and when a total eclipse blackened the sky for six minutes and 25 seconds, the emperor saw it as warning.

Eclipses have also been noteworthy in two prominent religions. According to Live Science, the biblical story of Jesus’ crucifixion, which mentions the sky went dark, was quite possibly detailing an eclipse. Accordingly, some historians used astronomy to pinpoint the time of Jesus’ death. Historians speculate Jesus either died during the one minute 59 second total solar eclipse in 29 C.E. or during the total solar eclipse in 33 C.E. that lasted four minutes and six seconds.

The Koran too notes eclipses occurring before the birth of Mohammed in 569 C.E. that lasted for three minutes and 17 seconds. A second eclipse that lasted one minute and 40 seconds apparently occurred following the death of Mohammed’s son, Ibrahim. However, Mohammed later dispelled the myth that the sun or the moon was linked to the birth or death of any person, and the eclipse was not seen as a sign from God.

Etched in memory

Regardless of how the eclipse is interpreted, the event itself is sure to be memorable for any number of reasons.

The last time the U.S. saw a total solar eclipse like the Great American Eclipse was February 26, 1979, when Jimmy Carter was president and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” was a rising hit. However, the 1979 eclipse’s path of totality was only over five Northwestern states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota), and the viewing for most was obscured by uncooperative weather. The next Great American Eclipse won’t happen again until April 2024, when the path stretches from Maine to Texas.

During a total solar eclipse, the sun’s corona, it’s vast outer atmosphere, radiates around the dark lunar disk and may be viewed by the naked eye.

Russo, the Australian psychologist, eclipse chaser and planning consultant, has been chasing eclipses for 18 years and has witnessed 10 total eclipses.

She describes seeing the corona as particularly special. “It’s like an ethereal, wispy light emanating from the eclipsed sun. Every one is different. Sometimes it is elongated, and other times it’s more circular, almost like petals on a flower,” she said. “There is also great beauty all around—the world looks surreal, a little wrong. Everything feels otherworldly. It is such a unique feeling—it doesn’t just happen above you, but also around you and within you.”

That’s not all. Astronomy Magazine reports that nature will assume a strange aesthetic and ambience—shadows will become sharper, breezes usually dissipate, and birds will likely stop chirping. A temperature drop of 10 to 15 degrees is also possible, especially here in Wyoming.

Russo is among the thousands of people who will travel many miles and spend beaucoup dollars to see a total eclipse. She’s working with a tour company, Independent Traveller, which narrowed down the options to a few locations, Grand Teton National Park being one of them. The company finally settled on the Tetons. Around 30 international “chasers,” Russo among them, will be along for the ride. “I’ve heard so much about [the valley]. There’s something about Wyoming that really calls to me. I’m not just coming for the eclipse. I’m also coming to view the state.”

Russo has been giddily eyeing weather reports and keeping up with  daily happenings.

She’s also been monitoring GTNP attendance for the past couple of summers and realizes the specific challenges the eclipse may present during peak tourism season.

“You’re in one of the most beautiful locations across the path of totality, and I think you’re also in a location that’s at peak visiting time—it’s going to be in August—so you’re already at peak demand,” she said. “So I think it’s fair to say you’re one of the most attractive locations for viewing the total solar eclipse but it has challenges because of the desirability factor.”

Cautioning against turning all attention to visitors traveling to the valley for the eclipse, Russo said planners and local government should focus largely on locals and how to build community around the phenomena. “I know it’s cliché, but this is a once in a lifetime experience,” she said, “in any one location, a total eclipse doesn’t happen but once in every 375 years … your community will remember this event forever.”

Prepping for total eclipse

For a place like Jackson Hole already accustomed to tourism, accommodating an influx of visitors is easier than for a place like Casper, which is also in the path of totality.

Anna Wilcox became Casper’s eclipse coordinator in June 2016. She said the job has been somewhat difficult because there’s not really a blueprint for how to prepare. “The greatest challenge has been just figuring out the overall direction, goals, and what we want to accomplish,” she said.

“Our biggest realization … was the idea that we needed to sit back and listen to the community, whether by taking questions, comments, expectations, and needs and figure out how they factor in and what overall direction to take with the festival.”

Wilcox said she and Casper officials recognize they don’t need to reinvent the wheel for the eclipse weekend, that there were all kinds of event planners, service providers, and the like ready and able to handle the event side. Her largest role is acting as a liaison between agencies and parties.

In preparing, Wilcox talked to many eclipse chasers who detailed amazing world adventures to witness a total solar eclipse.

“The whole process becomes part of the experience—taking snowmobiles five hours to the North Pole to see a total solar eclipse. We’re lucky to be in Wyoming,” Wilcox said. “We don’t need to create some sort of big crazy over the top event, we already provide something most places don’t simply by being Wyoming.”

Casper is planning for 35,000 visitors the weekend of the eclipse, Wilcox said. They hope to finalize that number as hotels book rooms over the next couple of months.

Another major piece of Wilcox’s job is getting information out to the public and to businesses. “One of the biggest misses in most of the communities [in the path of totality] is that the people who are living right in the path don’t even know it’s happening. We want to make sure no one shows up to work on Monday and wonders why they’re the only one there.”

Her hope is that the eclipse crowd will provide a huge financial injection for the community, struggling in the face of dwindling oil and gas revenues. Therefore, she said another aspect of planning is getting local businesses the tools and info they need to make decisions about how to prepare for the influx of people.

Getting people to return to Casper, Wilcox says, to generate tourism dollars in the future is also on her radar.

NASA’s live stream of the eclipse will be broadcasted from Casper as well.

Moon over the Tetons

Relative to Casper, Jackson is getting a late start planning for the natural event. The Town of Jackson hired an eclipse event coordinator, Kathryn Brackenridge, just last month.

“I wouldn’t say we’re behind,” said Rich Ochs, Teton County’s emergency management coordinator. “We still have an adequate amount of time.”

Ochs cites concerns with the standard issues of power outages, floods, and wildfires for that time of year. It’s all dependent on Mother Nature. There’s been massive snowfall this winter. But August concerns will depend on how quickly or slowly the snowpack melts. Therefore Ochs said they have contingencies for everything.

“As a public safety team, we needed to talk to others to understand the scope of how big this can be. Once we figured that out, we started to lobby elected officials.”

Often, when a community is in the path of totality, they know that there will be an influx of eclipse chasers, but it’s difficult to estimate exactly how many. Brackenridge noted: “All lodging is pretty much full and by the time the eclipse rolls around they will all be full.”

Brackenridge said she’s hesitant to offer a number because she said she is still in a nebulous planning stage. But using the same metrics of other eclipse communities, adding numbers for lodging—“heads-in-beds,” camping, transients and day trippers, and visitors staying with residents, and multiplying that by four results in 87,000 visitors, a very soft estimate, she stressed.

Short term rentals are already reserved beyond normal August levels. Jon Burnett of Jackson Hole Reservations Company said of the 350 units they book in Jackson Hole, only seven units are available over eclipse weekend. “Christmas is typically our busiest time, and this is above what’s typical for that,” Burnett said. “Right now we’re looking at 95 to 98 percent, which is absolutely nuts for us. We’re getting a lot of calls and have had to turn people away.”

Town of Jackson’s public information officer Carl Pelletier confirmed that local officials have been meeting since 2015 to plan for and address challenges that the eclipse will present. Like Casper’s Wilcox, Brackenridge was hired specifically to streamline planning efforts between agencies. Brackenridge’s background is in information sharing and marketing, making her an ideal person for a job calling for more management and coordination over planning or promotion.

“This is unique because we have so many land agencies and stakeholders involved,” Pelletier said.

The hope is that Brackenridge will be the key player in bringing all these actors and information together.

Brackenridge has been on the job a mere three weeks, and one of those weeks was during a state of emergency that had emergency planners occupied. Pelletier likened her first couple of weeks to drinking water out of a fire hose.

Both he and Brackenridge stressed the town and county are not promoting the eclipse but instead are simply trying to manage it.

“It’ll be a real chapter in the history of an extraordinary place and we want people to come here and enjoy it,” Brackenridge said.  “And we need to embrace it and make sure it’s a safe, peaceful and happy event for all.”

Often, in the haste to view the eclipse unobstructed, people clamor to find desirable locations, and ignore trail designators or fences. “We need to have a preservationist mentality about it all—our public lands are up for grabs if we don’t plan accordingly and we are inundated with people,” she said.

For the moment Brackenridge is tackling public safety and emergency management issues and then plans to move on to the more fun stuff. “I’m in the public safety and in the emergency planning phase, addressing concerns and summarizing them and then I’m presenting the facts and recommendations to policy makers.”

The eclipse falls on a Monday, which likely means the weekend will be chaotic. “If the numbers we anticipate show up here this place is going to be quite crowded and everyone who lives and works here needs to be prepared for that.” For instance, she said, the community needs to know that calls to dispatch will be prioritized based on emergency and the likelihood of getting a response to someone being on a private lawn or drive will not take precedence as responders will be stretched thin.

Teton County is primed for an event like this, and unlike Casper, is already visitor friendly. “I don’t want to sound alarmist. It’s going to be business as usual with an exclamation point,” Brackenridge said.

There are already eclipse viewing events planned at Snow King Mountain and at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and there are more in the works. Keeping track of what’s going on is central to Brackenridge’s work.

Part of controlling the chaos, Brackenridge noted, is making sure events are well attended and that hosts have or are able to acquire what they need, such as portable toilets, to ensure everything goes off without a hitch. Amassing people in different locations is much better than having tons of random people poaching lawns, driveways, or public lands, she said.

One of the main objectives is “how to get people engaged and participating without it taking too much of a toll on the community,” Brackenridge explained. This means tackling traffic and congestion. Solutions to mitigate impact of so many cars and people on the roads and on public and protected lands have yet to be discussed.

According to the National Park Service website, Great Smokey Mountain National Park is issuing tickets to view the eclipse from Clingmans Dome to minimize cars, congestion, and impact. Brackenridge said she hasn’t begun to think along those lines, but given the overlap of land agencies in the area, such a solution, though useful, is hard to imagine. Ultimately, any decision for how to handle access, Brackenridge says, will be left to the Teton County commissioners and town council. Issues such as this are coming down the pipeline.

Commissioner Greg Epstein is ready to address whatever is presented to him and cautiously expects a crowd much larger than Jackson has seen. “If the weather is favorable I think the 2017 eclipse will be July Fourth times ten.”

Brackenridge hopes that some of the solutions found for this event will translate to future solutions for public transportation year-round. Overcrowding has become a major summer conundrum and there does not appear to be an end in sight, especially in Grand Teton National Park.

The National Park Service website for GTNP has no information on this summer’s eclipse yet. GTNP spokesperson Denise Germann said they don’t yet have all of their resources assembled for updating the website but plan to have more information in the next few weeks. “We are expecting lots of people … We’re looking at trying to set up some guidelines to have an enjoyable and safe visit at the park. We know that we’re going to get a large influx of visitors not only on the weekend but also the week before and after,” she said.

Grand Teton National Park will hold special programs throughout the summer geared to sky viewing, and at the time of the eclipse there will be ranger-led programming. Germann also said to expect congestion, but she encourages people to use the pathways for hiking and biking and to use alternative means of transportation.

There is a chance that any park and ride solutions could pave the way for the future. “Why not incentivize tourists to leave their cars?” Brackenridge asked. “If you look at Jenny Lake this summer, yes, it was a milestone moment with the centennial in the park, a very specific moment in time; we’ve passed a certain mark, and we’re seeing unprecedented numbers of cars backed up on highways and roads. It was never like that five years ago. It’s inhospitable to visit and it raises real questions about how we handle cars in the valley.”

Ultimately, Brackenridge says the eclipse will force people in the valley to confront what the future may hold. “This summer’s eclipse could usher in a much larger conversation [about] how we conduct ourselves as a community going forward, in terms of volume and enjoying our surroundings without it being claustrophobic,” she said. “This is an opportunity to problem solve and find solutions, which is one of the most compelling aspects of this task.” PJH

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