March 17, 2024

By Nick Strobel | 03/11/24
March 24 at 30 minutes after sunset looking west-northwest plus inset showing map of total solar eclipses in North America

The Spring Equinox is at an earlier date this year, March 19, because of the leap year. The sun will cross the Celestial Equator heading northward at 8:06 p.m. Pacific time, officially beginning our season of spring. The full moon will be on the night of March 24, so our schools will have their spring break at the end of March. That’s because the Bakersfield area schools have their spring break tied to Easter and Easter is the Sunday after the first full moon after March 21. Easter can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25. School boards won’t have to worry about setting a very early spring break until 2285 but a very late spring break will happen in 2038.

Sunday, March 24 will be the best time this year to hunt for Mercury in the evening. Mercury will be at its greatest separation from the sun that evening. It will be about a fist width above the west-northwestern horizon, half an hour after sunset.

Two weeks after the full moon is the new moon on April 8 and that new moon will be exactly lined up with the sun to make a total solar eclipse for those lucky to be in a narrow strip (just 88 to 125 miles wide) of Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The path of totality on land starts in southern Mexico and then heads northeast through the middle of Texas, middle of Arkansas, southeastern corner of Missouri, southern Illinois, middle of Indiana, western Ohio, northern New York, southern Ontario, Quebec, northern Vermont, New Hampshire, middle of Maine, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. The period of totality is longest on the centerline of the path with the length of totality getting up to 4 minutes 28 seconds in Mexico and the southern end of Texas. By the time the umbra shadow reaches Newfoundland, the centerline totality will be just 2 minutes 57 seconds long. The farther you are from the centerline, the shorter will be totality.

I saw an electronic billboard on the new crosstown freeway with a countdown to the total solar eclipse but outside of the narrow strip of totality (pretty much the entire North America continent), people will see a partial solar eclipse. For Bakersfield, the partial solar eclipse will begin at 10:09 a.m., reach 45% max coverage at 11:13 a.m., and finish at 12:21 p.m.

If you’re able to travel to the narrow strip of totality, I strongly encourage you to do so. In the case of a total solar eclipse, being outside the totality strip is significantly different—99% coverage is pretty much the same as 45% coverage. The extra 1% makes all the difference! Also, it is a very different experience being in the path of totality and seeing the sun 100% covered with your own eyes vs. just looking at the event on a TV monitor or computer screen.

A few weeks ago, someone asked me what was the big deal about a total solar eclipse—why travel to it instead of watching the broadcast. I told her that I had made three attempts to see a total solar eclipse, traveling to China for the first one in 2009 and to Australia for the second one in 2012. Both were clouded out. The third attempt in 2017 in eastern Wyoming finally succeeded. Seeing the moon’s umbra shadow rush over you at almost 1600 miles per hour and the sun’s surface totally blocked by the black moon with an eerie, wispy white glow around it (the sun’s corona outer atmosphere) is an experience that activates the entire brain. There’s an instinctual response from the primitive deep parts of the brain sensing that the object responsible for the life-giving daylight is gone and another response from the cerebral cortex part of the brain making sense of the unique geometry of sun, moon, and Earth. Instinctual, emotional, and rational responses simultaneously. Watching the broadcast just activates the cerebral cortex responses.

An analogy to describe the difference between experiencing a total solar eclipse in the path of totality vs. watching a broadcast or viewing pictures afterward is childbirth. It’s one thing for a man to view a video of a childbirth and quite another for a woman to go through childbirth, bringing another person into the world. If I haven’t convinced you to travel to totality, then at least try the NASA Solar Eclipse broadcast. To find out more about the April 8 solar eclipse, visit the NASA website. Espenak did all of the eclipse predictions for NASA before he retired several years ago.

The next total solar eclipse will be in August 2026 but the totality path will be in Spain, Portugal, Iceland, Greenland, and northern tip of Russia. Northern Alaska will see a total solar eclipse in March 2033 and the next one visible somewhere in the lower 48 states will be in August 2044 (from northern Montana) and August 2045 in the southern half of the U.S. Check out the world atlas of solar eclipses for making your travel plans.

Nick Strobel

Director of the William M Thomas Planetarium at Bakersfield College

Author of the award-winning website