Astronomy professor Aaron Steinhauer offers tips for watching the total solar eclipse in April 2024.
By Robyn Rime
“It’s one of those experiences you never forget,” says Aaron Steinhauer, SUNY Geneseo professor of physics and astronomy. “It’s one of the most inspiring events in nature that isn’t dangerous. It’s rare and exciting and unusual … but you need to be paying attention.”
“It” is a total solar eclipse—the kind that brings dusk at midday and transforms the landscape with eerie shadows and extraordinary light. It’s coming to upstate New York, and Steinhauer wants you to know about it.
On April 8, 2024, the Moon will pass between the Sun and the Earth, and its shadow will cross the North American continent, from Mexico to the Canadian Maritime provinces. Upstate New York will be smack in the middle of what astronomers call the path of totality, the narrow geographic area where the Sun is completely blocked.
“Total solar eclipses happen once or twice a year, but they happen in very specific, very small strips of locations on the Earth,” says Steinhauer. “To have one happen where you live is very unusual in an entire lifetime.”
Not only are eclipses in your neighborhood rare, says Steinhauer, this one will be exceptional—thanks to the size of the Moon, the activity on the Sun, and the duration of the eclipse.
The Moon has an elliptical orbit, he explains, which means it’s sometimes close to Earth and sometimes further away. When it’s further away, we don’t see total eclipses, we see annular ones, where the Moon doesn’t fully cover the disk of the Sun’s surface and appears as a ring of fire in the sky. In April, however, the Moon’s orbit will bring it close enough to Earth to completely cover the Sun, resulting in the rare and striking corona of sun rays visible only during totality.
Second, says Steinhauer, what we see during totality will be especially dazzling because of increased solar activity. “Solar activity” includes phenomena such as sunspots and prominences—magnetic field lines that break through the Sun’s surface and drag hot plasma with them. The Sun goes through an 11-year cycle, with fluctuating years of greater and lesser activity, and 2024 is near the peak of solar maximum. “That means the magnetic activity on the surface of the Sun is stronger, and you get more sunspots and more prominences,” he says. And a bigger show during a total eclipse.
Finally, upstate New York will get more than three full minutes of totality—plenty of time to really take it all in.
SUNY Geneseo is helping to ensure its students are all aware of the upcoming celestial display. The Provost’s Office has launched Ideas that Matter, a Geneseo initiative that develops educational programming, academic courses, and campus, alumni, and community events around a different theme each year. The theme for the 2023–24 academic year is Myth and Science, which handily encompasses the eclipse, and the College has a series of Myth and Science events planned throughout the year. All classes are canceled on April 8 so everyone has the opportunity to view the spectacle.
Steinhauer himself is doing what he can to raise awareness of the event. “I’ve been talking about it to every astronomy class I’ve taught since 2006,” he says with a smile. The physics and astronomy department is integrating eclipse information into its coursework, and Steinhauer and astronomy research students are also collaborating with the School of Education to deliver lesson plans and demonstrations about the eclipse in local classrooms.
“We’re taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the kids in the area to get excited about science, to get excited about Geneseo,” he says. “We’re making sure there’s nobody who isn’t aware of this cool thing happening on April 8.”
Top Tips for Watching the Eclipse
- Don’t look at the sun without protection.
Use ACS-approved eclipse glasses, make a pinhole camera, or watch sunlight filtering through leaves and making little crescents on the ground. “Once the sun is in total eclipse, you can look at it without glasses,” says Steinhauer. “Set a timer so you know when to put glasses back on.”
- Watch for weirdness in nature.
It’s going to get really dark, says Steinhauer, as though it were dusk or dawn, and nature will think it’s nighttime. Animals and birds will get confused, so watch for crickets to chirp and flowers to close during the 15 minutes before and after totality.
- Catch all the celestial phenomena.
Baily’s Beads, the diamond ring effect, a bright pink chromosphere, and the iconic corona—you can learn about all of them at Geneseo Solar Eclipse, a website created by Steinhauer and associate professor of physics and astronomy Anne Pellerin.
- Listen to the weather forecast.
Be aware of the forecasted weather in the week leading up to the eclipse. For the eclipse in 2017, Steinhauer drove to South Carolina to witness totality, “which turned out to be a mistake because it was raining the entire day,” he says. The lesson he learned? Don’t make plans a month ahead of time because you don’t know where the clouds will be.
“If it will be clear in Geneseo, then I won’t need to go anywhere—but I’m going to chase this one if I need to,” Steinhauer says. “My advice is, it’s worth traveling to see this thing. Go to where you can see it, because it’s going to be that cool. You’ll thank yourself later.”