Eclipse over Clemson has international draw, inspires awe
CLEMSON, South Carolina — Fifty-thousand people on the Clemson University campus craned their necks skyward at 2:37 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, to gaze at a natural phenomenon that hasn’t happened in the United States for 100 years: a coast-to-coast total solar eclipse.
Nearly all the United States and large parts of Mexico and Canada experienced part of the eclipse, but Clemson was about three miles from being in the exact middle of the 67-mile wide path of totality, the darkest swath of the moon’s shadow that fell on Oregon and trekked across mountains and prairies and South Carolina beaches before fading into the Atlantic Ocean.
Roiling thunderclouds threatened to dampen the spectacle in the hour leading up to the eclipse, but the clouds parted, the skies cleared and the moon crept slowly between Earth and the sun, 93 million miles away, like a moth floating in front of a flame.
“For many, a total solar eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and to experience this incredible phenomenon with our students and thousands of visitors was truly special,” Clemson President James P. Clements said. “I’m very appreciative of our faculty and our eclipse planning team, who shared their expertise and devoted considerable time over the summer in order to make Clemson one of the very best places in the country to view the eclipse.”
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Indeed, the totality, which lasted two minutes and 37 seconds, required months of planning led by Amber Porter, a lecturer in physics and astronomy who received her doctorate from Clemson in 2016, and Jim Melvin, director of communications for the College of Science.
The timing of the eclipse couldn’t have been better in terms of drawing a crowd. Clemson students and their families spent the days leading up to the eclipse moving into dorms and returning to town, preparing for the start of the fall semester. Convocation, which welcomed thousands of first-year, transfer and graduate students, took place earlier on eclipse day; broadcaster and author Jay Allison was the invited speaker.
But the eclipse was the big draw, as people traveled to Clemson from across the eastern half of the U.S., from Orono, Maine, to Miami, Florida; and from London, Israel, Australia and other locations around the globe. Hotel rooms were booked months in advance, and homes and apartments typically rented for football weekends were sold out.
The day was an opportunity to celebrate science and Clemson’s recent elevation to a Carnegie Tier One research university. Clemson participated in a national research project called Citizen CATE, sponsored by the National Solar Observatory. Astronomy professor Sean Brittain trained a telescope on the eclipse from the rooftop terrace of the Watt Family Innovation Center and captured photographs for the project. His was one of 68 telescopes positioned across the country in the path of totality, each taking 1,000 images. The result will be a “scientifically unique data set: high-resolution, rapid-cadence white light images of the inner corona for 90 minutes,” according to the project’s website.
The University of Maine sent a team of students to campus with three weather balloons, which floated more than 100,000 feet into the stratosphere streaming images of Earth and the moon’s shadow.
A team from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, set up a GPS (global positioning satellite) antenna on the roof of Kinard Hall to measure how the quick shift from sunlight to darkness affects the ionosphere, which in turn could affect the accuracy of GPS signals.
More than 20 media outlets from around the country descended on Clemson. National outlets such as The Weather Channel, National Public Radio, the NBC Newschannel, the Washington Post, FOX News and Scientific American were all reporting during the eclipse, as were Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Mundo Hispanico. Wanda Johnson, a strategic communication specialist who coordinated much of the media logistics, said one news crew came from Slovakia.
According to Joe Mazer, director of Clemson’s Social Media Listening Center, which monitors social media activity from 150 million sources worldwide, the terms #eclipse and #clemson together were mentioned 5.37 million times on eclipse day.
A crowd of about 20,000 filled the south lawn behind Cooper Library and between the Watt Family Innovation Center and the Academic Success Center in 90-plus degree heat. The main stage featured a diverse lineup of speakers, including Porter; Mark Leising, professor of astronomy and physics; eclipse-chaser and umbraphile Rick Brown from New York; Clements; and Melvin, who read a poem, “Eclipse,” by Southern author Ron Rash. Another 30,000 or more spectators congregated in other open areas of campus, including Bowman Field, the amphitheater and the dikes lining Hartwell Lake.
The crowds cheered the moon — or the sun in the moments before totality — as raucously as for a Clemson Tigers’ touchdown and erupted in loud applause at the moment of totality. Just as predicted, the sun shone through the gaps between the mountains of the moon’s horizon, creating a beading effect on the circle of light that seeped around the moon. Small crescent shadows clustered along the ground.
As a momentary nighttime fell, crickets chirped, cicadas clattered and bats took to the air as darkness fell and a bright, 360-degree Clemson-orange sunset appeared on the horizon. Swaths of brilliant white light soared from behind the moon, and the glare of a “diamond ring” emerged as the moon slowly left the sun’s path.
One visitor noted a sense of shared experience and community that’s often missing today as people accustomed to staring downward at phones and other devices looked skyward in unison in awe.
As the moon gave way to the sun, two and a half minutes after totality began, the Clemson campus again grew brightly lit. The crowds packed up their blankets and camp chairs, stowed their telescopes and homemade pinhole cameras, parents took their children’s hands and they moved slowly back toward their individual lives.