The Aug. 21 solar eclipse has created its own kind of crazy, and not only with a funky name.
The moon passes in front of the sun. Birds stop singing, temporarily. Nocturnal animals get confused.
The Path of Totality, as the scientists call it, will roll like a 70-mile-wide bowling ball across 14 states, from Oregon to South Carolina, on that Monday.
Troy, Kan., population 1,300, smack in the middle of the Path of Totality, will see two minutes and 38 seconds of near-total darkness at about 1 p.m.
This has become a huge, national, communal and sometimes dreaded thing. As University of Kansas astronomer and former Kansas astronaut Steve Hawley joked, “many people who couldn’t spell the word ‘eclipse’ two weeks ago are now planning to go to an eclipse.”
“NOVA,” the PBS documentary program, plans to cover the Atchison gathering live. So many people plan to go to Atchison, Troy, Hiawatha and other northeast Kansas towns that some planners say the entire cellphone network there might temporarily collapse.
At Benedictine College in Atchison, astronomy professor Ryan Maderak has called this “the science event of the century” and has scheduled Vatican astronomers to address the crowds, including about how the Vatican put Galileo under house arrest for saying the Earth revolves around the sun.
Jan Luth, Exploration Place’s director in Wichita, noticed that campsites in northeast Kansas and beyond were booked full for Aug. 21 starting a year ago. All hotels and motels in northeast Kansas have been sold out since at least January.
Planning has divided families. Kind of.
“My husband plans to go to the Zone of Totality, and he’s really annoyed that I’m not going with him,” Luth joked. She plans to stay in Wichita instead and throw open the science center’s doors for a free 20-acre lunchtime party for Wichita, complete with solar telescopes, eclipse glasses, cameras and mirrors to reflect the crescent of the eclipsed sun. Wichitans who don’t enjoy northeast Kansas traffic jams can come there and see the sky go dim with a 93 percent partial eclipse, she said.
Besides Exploration Place, the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, which has large, grassy areas, will offer sun chips, moon pies, eclipse glasses and tables full of celestial information and images.
There are dangers.
“I don’t want to hear about a sudden outbreak of retinal burns,” said Harold Henderson of Wichita, who runs the Lake Afton Public Observatory. Look at the sun that day with eclipse glasses – and with great caution, he said. Or stay home and call up all the neat images NASA plans to showcase on its website, he said.
Those Lake Afton Public Observatory volunteers who can get away from their jobs on that Monday plan to go to Nebraska, northeast Kansas and Missouri, Henderson said.
Chambers of Commerce along the Path of Totality are happy. Law enforcement is nervous. Businesses are nervous as well as happy because – what happens if the forecast for Aug. 21 turns cloudy?
AccuWeather forecasts a sunny day for Aug. 21, but meteorologists always warn people never to trust a forecast more than five days out. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gives Kansas City a 51 percent chance of being cloudy that day, based on historical averages.)
“You look at this strictly as a tourism thing, and you see – what a great gift, what an awesome thing this is to just drop in our lap,” said Jacque Pregont, president of the Chamber of Commerce in Atchison, population 11,000.
“But we have no idea what to expect or how many will come here. No idea how many Porta-potties to order. We usually get our Porta-potties from St. Joe (St. Joseph, Mo., just up the road, population 76,000). But St. Joe (dead center in the Path of Totality) is telling us they expect total gridlock there, and ‘nope, you can’t have our Porta-potties.’ ”
Atchison has made room for up to 35,000 people at the fireworks show at the Amelia Earhart Festival on July 14 and 15 this year. So Atchison is not afraid of a crowd. But the uncertainty of how many are coming on Aug. 21 is creating some anxiety. It will be spectacular, Pregont said. But it also could become a giant traffic jam. “No one knows. No one has any idea.”
Henderson of the Lake Afton Public Observatory plans to go to Atchison on Aug. 21, where Maderak plans a two-day sprawling event.
Benedictine College will allow people to use its 2,800-seat football stadium and the grassy areas around it to set up telescopes on tripods. The Catholic school recently acquired new telescopes and is building a new astronomical observatory, thanks to donors.
“NOVA” plans live interviews on site. And Maderak has arranged for three Vatican astronomers to speak, including Father Chris Corbally, a research astronomer with the Vatican Observatory.
Corbally will speak about the church’s long and complicated relationship with science, including the Galileo story – and how the church since then not only has changed its tune but has contributed significantly to scientific discovery in everything from genetics (look up the monk Gregor Mendel) to the Big Bang Theory to evolution.
“An eclipse like this is so rare that it’s pretty much a once-in-a-multiple-lifetime event,” Maderak said. “We are planning for 5,000. We already have 2,000 students here. But we have no idea how big it will get.
“We’ve heard that Kansas City traffic will be jammed,” he said.
Henderson is concerned enough about traffic jams (and no-vacancy signs at northeast Kansas hotels), that he’s thinking about driving to Atchison from Wichita early the morning of Aug. 21.
Other towns on the Path of Totality also are planning events. Brown County, where Hiawatha, population 3,100, is located, plans a “Brown County Blackout.” In Doniphan County, the town of Troy plans a gathering with beer, food and “Eclipse in the Heartland” T-shirts.
“We’re very excited – people realize what a unique event this could be and how much fun for the kids and grandkids,” said Adrienne Korson, director of economic development for Doniphan County, based in Troy.
But others are nervous, she said.
“Emergency management is maybe freaking out a little,” she said. “And farmers who own property along U.S. Highway 36 are worried about people pulling off and parking in their crops. ‘Talk to your insurance agents,’ we’ve told them. ‘And take pictures.’ ”
Some farmers, however, are planning to open their property to parking – for a price, she said.
Korson and others will warn visitors to stay on the main highways in northeast Kansas.
“Don’t try to go off on dirt or gravel, because if you get stuck out there, it might be a long time before anyone finds you,” she said.
“Especially if the cellphone network stops working.”