Total solar eclipse to stun Bowling Green in 2017

Madison Martin

Even though the Fall 2016 semester has barely just begun, students can begin to look forward to the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime kind of “Welcome Back, Western” next year.

Classes won’t begin until 4:00 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2017, but this isn’t to let students sleep in – it’s to have time to experience a total solar eclipse, a phenomenon that hasn’t occurred within the continental United States in nearly 40 years.

A total solar eclipse, where the sun, moon and earth are in perfect alignment, will pass from the northwest to the southeast in the country, beginning in Oregon and last visible from land on the coast of South Carolina. The last total solar eclipse to pass over the continental United States was 1979, and could only be seen in the Pacific Northwest and North Dakota.

NASA defines a total solar eclipse as “only visible from a small area on Earth.” The moon intercepts the light from the sun, casting its shadow instead on the Earth, according to its website.

Richard Gelderman, professor of astronomy and physics, said a total solar eclipse means the sun effectively disappears and twilight takes over in the middle of the day.

“Nature is handing us one of the coolest natural events in a lifetime,” Gelderman said. “As a person, it’s not science, it’s not facts and logic; it’s raw emotion.”

Bowling Green sits right along the edge of the eclipse path, with places like the National Corvette Museum just out of reach of experiencing a total solar eclipse, Gelderman said. According to NASA, it will be visible for nearly one minute. Out of the whole eclipse path in the United States, Hopkinsville is arguably the most in alignment, boasting two minutes and 40 seconds of totality.

“It’s a once in a lifetime event, and from that perspective, the fact that it happens on WKU’s campus is going to be really cool,” Jennifer Tougas, director of Parking and Transportation services, said.

Tougas and Gelderman are part of a cross-departmental committee to plan how WKU should handle the eclipse in a way that stays true to a “core mission” and serves the needs of those that the university decides to serve.

Possible concepts Gelderman spoke of were to bus in K-12 students who live outside of the eclipse path but are located in the university’s service region of counties. He said there is discussion around the idea of throwing a celebration out on the South Lawn for WKU students and providing solar-viewing glasses. If children are invited to campus, that will be a definite part of the challenge Parking and Transportation Services will face in accommodating the community it wishes to serve while handling a predicted flood of people into the city.

“I think some of those unknowns that we’re still faced with … have to do with traffic infrastructure around Bowling Green,” Tougas said, “and if there’s truly an influx of hundreds of thousands of people coming to this section of country, then you know the best laid plans could have to go to ‘Plan B’ or ‘Plan C’, because of circumstances beyond our control.”

Gelderman predicts that even 100,000 extra people will be in Bowling Green when it comes time for the eclipse at 1:27 p.m. that day. He cites this because of Bowling Green being the first place northerners can come into contact with right off of I-65.

“It’s like Bonnaroo, thousands of miles wide,” Gelderman said, an analogy Nashville scientists had relayed to him. “Take all the craziness of Bonnaroo, and all the traffic problems and all the logistic problems of trying to bring people to a place where they normally aren’t, only thousands of miles wide.”

Tougas cautioned a paltry number of parking spots would be left over after on-campus and commuter students returned to WKU.

“150 parking spaces doesn’t get you very far in supporting 10,000 people,” Tougas said. “But of course in an academic institution, we can’t live in that fishbowl; we’ve got to meet the academic mission of the university.”

In the moments leading up to totality, solar viewing glasses must be worn to safely view the sun’s shrouding, little by little. Upon the point that the moon reaches its perfect alignment in front of the star, viewers can remove their glasses for that minute, to see a natural event that many won’t experience again.

“[The eclipse] both takes way too long, and goes by way too fast,” Gelderman said. “The moment it’s over, you want to see it again.”

Reporter Madison Martin can be reached at 270-745-2655 and [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @missmadielaine.