A once-in-a-lifetime celestial phenomenon will grace the skies of central New York this spring when a total solar eclipse will be visible on the afternoon of Monday, April 8.
Cayuga County is already gearing up for the spectacle, which is expected to bring an influx of sky watchers — technically known as “umbraphiles,” or shadow lovers — to the region.
They travel far, even internationally, to witness total solar eclipses, Claire Dunlap of the Cayuga County Tourism Office told The Citizen. According to space.com, a given point on Earth only sees totality — the moon’s shadow covering the sun entirely — every 400 to 500 years, on average. The last time a total eclipse touched Cayuga County was in 1925, and the next time will be in 2144.
To demonstrate the impact the rare event has on an area, Dunlap cited a study conducted in Columbia, South Carolina, which saw a total solar eclipse in 2017. Hotels were 95 percent to 100 percent occupied in the days leading up to it, an increase from 40% to 60%. Breweries and restaurants took a hit, doing more than 20% more business. Retail and museum gift shop sales tripled.
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That’s why the county tourism office is getting going, Dunlap said, at the spring event. Plans include a commemorative poster as well as participation in regional and state marketing efforts.
Traffic is another focus. Delays are expected, especially around the village of Fair Haven. As the northernmost point of Cayuga County, it will be closest to the path of totality.
Fair Haven Beach State Park will be open earlier than usual this morning for the event, Dunlap said. But due to the limited number of roads in the area, the tourist office suggests implementing safety plans for emergency vehicles. The office also noted that several New York school districts have already canceled classes that day due to traffic issues.
The eclipse will last about 45 minutes, the office said, but Fair Haven will see a total of about three minutes and 23 seconds. That was followed by a 2:30 at Cayuga, a 2:05 at Weedsport, a 1:09 at Union Springs and a 1:04 at Auburn. The view depends on location and weather, but the more northern and rural areas of Cayuga County will generally offer the best, Dunlap said.
Alan Ominski, the former director of the Southern Cayuga Planetarium, moved to the area from Minnesota in the early 2000s. He expressed his excitement about the eclipse with a laugh.
“We have an observatory here,” he told The Citizen, “but not many clear nights.”
Ominski said there will be plenty to see of the eclipse, although viewers shouldn’t be looking directly at it. Pinhole projectors are usually constructed with paper plates, but those who want to witness the spectacle first hand can use branded filter glasses released by the county tourism office. They are now available, Dunlap said, and provide safe viewing of the aggregate.
Binoculars and telescopes can also be used, Ominski said, but their lenses will need special filters for proper viewing.
“They (filters) will dim the light and only a small fraction of the sunlight will enter your eye,” he said. What viewers will see are sunspots and the solar corona, the outermost part of its atmosphere. “People may not realize that the sun is rotating,” he continued, explaining that the jets of hydrogen would be seen as little white needles around the moon.
Although the next total solar eclipse may not come to Cayuga County for more than a century, the spectacle is somewhat common, Ominski said.
“Total eclipses happen every eight to ten years somewhere on Earth,” he said. “It’s just being in the right place at the right time.”
Ominsky briefly reflected on an eclipse he witnessed in the 1950s at the University of Minnesota. It was a big deal, and NBC and CBS hosted live broadcasts while it was happening.
“I was lucky it happened,” he said. “It’s one of the most magical sights in the sky.”
Staff writer Christopher Malone can be reached at (315) 282-2232 or [email protected].