Just how difficult is it to stand in totality? First, a quick astronomy lesson. Solar eclipses occur at new moon, when the moon passes between Earth and the sun. If this occurs when the moon is orbiting relatively close to Earth, when the moon appears large enough in the sky to completely cover the sun, a total solar eclipse occurs.
If this infrequent alignment of Earth, sun and moon occurs when the moon is at the far end of its orbit, when it’s too small in the sky to cover the sun completely, an annular eclipse occurs. (Unlike total eclipses, ?annulars are dangerous to view with the naked eye because even at peak phase, a searingly bright ring of sunlight, called the annulus, still surrounds the moon.)
An average of two and a half solar eclipses? occur every year, but total solar eclipses come along only about once every one and a half to two years. And here’s where umbraphiles pad their frequent-flier miles: The path of totality is typically about 10,000 miles long and just 100 miles or so wide, covering just a scant 1 percent of Earth’s surface.
That totality path can fall anywhere on Earth. Want to see it from the same spot twice? Fat chance. According to Fred ?Espenak, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., you’d have to wait an average of 375 years to achieve that. And as surely as a dropped nut rolls to the most inaccessible place possible, the totality path more often than not occurs in places that are anything but convenient to reach: Siberia, Zambia, Libya, Easter Island, Antarctica, or the middle of the Pacific or Atlantic, to name a few cozy locales.
Those remote locations help explain why Jay Pasachoff of Williamstown, Mass., flies at least 100,000 miles a year. A professor of astronomy at Williams College in Williamstown and one of the world’s leading? umbraphiles, Pasachoff is a veteran of 53 solar eclipses, including 29 total eclipses. He’s flown more than 3 million miles during his career and says that his unerring quest for totality bliss contributed to a decent chunk of that mileage.
Pasachoff saw his first eclipse in October 1959 as a freshman at Harvard College. Aptly enough, he saw it from a plane — a DC-3 obtained by a well-connected professor. Pasachoff was so jazzed by the experience that he went on to become an astronomy professor and a noted solar-eclipse expert.
Pasachoff is currently second on the totality leader board, an informal competition among umbraphiles to see who can spend the most time in totality. He’s racked up one hour, 14 minutes and 2.8 seconds in totality. He’s also far and away the leader in “shadow time” — total time spent under the shadow of the moon, including partial, total and annular eclipses — with 125.41 hours; no one else on the list of more than 100 people tops 100 hours.
Pasachoff will add to that shadow-time total when he travels to New Zealand for the Nov. 25 partial eclipse. For hard-core umbraphiles, partials and annulars provide a fix in between the full Montys. But for others, the event doesn’t justify the expense.
“The difference between totality and partiality is like the difference between driving a Ford Pinto and a Rolls-Royce,” asserts Greg Buchwald. He should know — the electrical engineer from Crystal Lake, Ill., has seen nine total solar eclipses and three annulars. He figures that he and his wife, Vicki, a dental hygienist, have spent between $20,000 and $25,000 on eclipse trips to China (twice), Easter Island, Turkey, Australia, Venezuela and Zambia.
“I know people who have spent more than $100,000 on eclipse chasing,” he says. “But it’s worth every penny. And if you look at what people spend on other vacations and things, it doesn’t seem all that out of line.”