Citizen Science Musings: Eclipse Lessons

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By Sheldon Greaves
Photos by Sheldon and Denise Greaves

Denise shoots the eclipse through the haze. Photo by Sheldon Greaves.

Last Monday I gave an abbreviated account of our efforts to view the annular eclipse ("Chasing Clear Skies"), a partial success one might say in eclipse viewing. This was a different kind of adventure for us because we took this much more seriously than previous major astronomical events. We learned a few things about doing this kind of "field" science around a discrete, one-time event. Here are a few of the lessons learned.

 

Preparation
It's hard to overstress the advantages of preparing for something like this, especially if you aren't a practiced eclipse-chaser. "Practice" is an operative word here. We dug deep and sprang for some additional gear for the eclipse; some filters for Denise's camera, another for our aging C-90 telescope, and a T-ring to mate a Nikon to the aforementioned telescope. These were not complicated items, but we did spend some time practicing with them.

The first was by taking advantage of the "super moon" where we tried out these new setups in the field (See "Shooting the Moon"). Every time you change your equipment, it seems to introduce little extra details into the process of using them, from how the total package functions in the field to the logistics involved ("Now where did I put that <insert missing item> ?").

After that, we both spent some time in the yard looking through the filtered cameras and telescope, playing with the equipment until we felt comfortable with all the configurations we expected to use. I wanted to use my old Olympus SP-350, which is a slightly enhanced point-and-shoot model, to do a timelapse of the eclipse and tried to make a filter for is, using a plastic lid as a frame for holding some filter material in place. In the end, it was simply easier to put some filter material over the lens and hold it in place with a rubber band. Another lesson learned: don't overcomplicate things. The corollary to that advice is, use the best equipment you can afford.

We also spent a long time on the computer looking at various possible viewing sites. I copied and printed out the critical information for the eclipse such as when it would start and end, duration of annularity, and so forth, for different locations we had selected as possible viewing sites, including the estimated travel times to each one. One weakness in the plan is that I didn't spend as much time reviewing the weather forecasts as I probably should have; it might have saved us some trouble.

We gave careful attention to other matters from making sure our cell phones were charged up to getting up to date road maps from AAA (I can't afford a GPS yet. Besides, leaning on such gadgets feels like I'm pandering to my weaker instincts. We both brought compasses.) and having plenty of snacks and sandwiches and drinks for the road.

The Big Day
We managed to get on the road a bit earlier than we planned, which was a good thing. Our intention was to head north from San Jose and try to view it from Redwood National Park, which lay as close along the middle of the path of annularity as made no difference. Some unexpected street closures and an accident on Hwy 101 hampered getting across the Golden Gate, but once that was done it was pretty much clear sailing. But as we headed north we both noticed some whispy cirrus clouds lacing the western skies. As we got closer to Eureka, the clouds got lower, grayer, and larger. It was pretty obvious that it wasn't going to work. Time to improvise.

Denise started looking at the local road map; she is quite good with maps (among her many other talents, she is an expert on the science of Geography in ancient Greece and Rome). From our vantage point, the cloud cover diminished to the south, so we returned that direction. Another problem was that we were surrounded by hills and redwood trees that blocked any view of the western sky. So we had to find a way to the coast.

Eventually we found and followed a narrow winding road through the mountains and woods that led from Hwy 101 to the little town of Ferndale in Humboldt County. The drive was quite spectacular, although I was worried about finding a good viewing site in time. Passing through the town, the road dropped us on the edge of some of the most spectacular coastline I've ever seen (and I was raised in western Oregon). Just incredible, and hopefully the object of another expedition some day. It was totally isolated except for some grazing cattle on the eastern side of the road. We found a small gravel turnout on the ocean side, parked, and set up our gear with a half hour to spare.

The clouds that plagued the north started moving in on us, but we managed to view bits of the eclipse. Denise doggedly kept shooting at the bright spot that was the sun even when it wasn't clear that there was anything visible. To our delight, when she got the photos out of the camera and up on the computer screen at home, she found these two gems among many others:

Maybe not perfect, but fascinating and, if I may say, rather artistic.

Another lesson: don't be afraid to trust your gear.

Epilogue
The experience of planning and taking a trip like this can be highly rewarding, even if things don't quite work out as planned. They certainly didn't in our case, but because we had made preparations and tried to anticipate the problems we might face, what could have been a total shut-out turned into a fascinating, enjoyable time.

Another thing: it's easy in the midst of preparing to capture data and images and numbers to miss the intangibles, the sheer sense of wonder and pleasure that comes with learning or witnessing some new thing. There's just nothing quite like it. And this trip will surely help us when we attempt to view and photograph the transit of Venus on the 5th of June--already in the planning stages. Moreover,we want to go back to that isolated stretch of coastal roadway both to photograph the scenery and fauna there. I saw some excellent sites where I'd like to indulge my fascination with intertidal marine life.

And so it goes.

 

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3 Responses to Citizen Science Musings: Eclipse Lessons

  1. Nice account of the preparation that went into this eclipse trip. Clouds have always been the enemy of eclipses, but Denise’s shots have magic of their own. Their are countless identical photos of the eclipse–but every shot through thin clouds is absolutely unique.

  2. Alena says:

    Thanks for your account of trying to capture the eclipse. I had a similar experience, where I had planned to photograph an oak tree in the foreground. It turned out to be a difficult thing to accomplish since I couldn’t find a tree that I could get far enough away from at the right angle to effectively use my telephoto lens. I did get a photo, but not the masterpiece I’d hoped for. I actually love the photos with the clouds, which lend the images a certain mystery.

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