Astronomer hosting program about upcoming total solar eclipse

Enrique Gomez

A total solar eclipse will darken the skies over a slice of Western North Carolina in August, and Enrique Gomez, associate professor of astronomy and physics at Western Carolina University, is planning a presentation to help the public understand the celestial phenomenon.

The public lecture, titled “The Great American Eclipse of 2017: What to Expect and How to Experience It,” will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, in the theater of A.K. Hinds University Center. Sponsored by WCU’s Department of Chemistry and Physics, the event is open free of charge.

The upcoming total solar eclipse has been dubbed “The Great American Solar Eclipse” because a narrow but lengthy swath of North America from coast to coast will experience a period of total darkness during the daytime hours of Monday, Aug. 21.

“My intent for this presentation is to talk primarily about the science of an eclipse and how to experience the eclipse safely,” said Gomez, who has witnessed two total solar eclipses in his lifetime – in Mexico City in 1991 and in Austria in 1999.

“This will be the first total solar eclipse across the continental United States since 1979, and the WCU campus in Cullowhee will be in the path of totality,” he said. “I will explain the peculiarities of solar eclipses of the Earth-moon system, discuss geometric and atmospheric effects that can be expected during this event, and share proper observing techniques for a memorable, as well as safe, viewing experience.”

A total solar eclipse occurs when the entirety of the moon passes in front of the sun and completely covers it, resulting in daytime darkness. Eclipse watchers should use special solar viewing glasses to avoid damage to the eyes from the sun’s intense rays, which are not blocked by the moon.

The Aug. 21 happening will mark the first total solar eclipse visible in Cullowhee since July 20, 1506. The next one, astronomers say, will occur Oct. 17, 2153, making the 2017 eclipse a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Cullowhee and the surrounding area will be experiencing nearly two minutes of total darkness beginning at 2:35 p.m. Aug. 21, making it a probable prime viewing location, he said. Only the nearby town of Cashiers, with 2 minutes and 23 seconds of darkness, will experience longer totality in Jackson County.

Gomez and Steve Morse, director of WCU’s Hospitality and Tourism Program, are among the university’s representatives serving on a task force of people from across Jackson County working to plan events around the eclipse and to prepare for a probable influx of people, one that has the potential to have a large impact on the region’s tourism economy.

“From personal experience, I can attest that this is a thrilling event, one that can attract people from thousands of miles away, even from other countries,” Gomez said. “I expect we will be getting many people, perhaps thousands, from major metropolitan areas to our region to witness this event. We could potentially see the population of the western counties double for that day.”

A complicating factor is that the total solar eclipse will occur on the first day of classes at WCU and on the heels of the busiest weekend of the academic year as parents help new and returning students move into their residence halls and off-campus apartments Aug. 18-20.

University officials are discussing activities that will allow students, faculty and staff to have the opportunity to witness the eclipse.

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