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Dennis Mammana: Santa Barbara County to Get Partial Glimpse of Total Eclipse

The magic of totality can be seen on Aug. 21. Click to view larger
The magic of totality can be seen on Aug. 21. (Dennis Mammana photo /

I often ask those in my audiences whether they’ve ever experienced a total solar eclipse. Some say yes, some say no. And some reply with “I think I did once.”

Trust me, folks — if you think you did, you didn’t. There is nothing on or above this planet that can possibly compare; you would absolutely know!

On Aug. 21, we in the continental United States will enjoy our first total solar eclipse in nearly four decades. The path of totality arcs across the nation from Oregon to South Carolina, and tens of millions of sky watchers will head to this swath of land to experience the rare celestial show. (Click here for more details in last week’s column, as well as over the next two weeks.)

Many, unfortunately, will be content to stay where they are or stand just outside the path of totality and watch a partial eclipse, which is what Santa Barbara County residents will see.

“Why should it matter?” they wonder. “How much difference could there possibly be between a partial and a total eclipse?”

Those who venture into the path of totality will soon discover the answer.

The sky show will begin that day as the moon’s silhouette drifts silently in front of our star, creating a partial solar eclipse. Within a half-hour or so, the sun’s light will dim enough to give the environment an inexplicably steely appearance.

The sun will continue to shrink gradually behind the moon’s advancing disk until a minute or two before totality, when things begin to change rapidly.

In the western sky, the moon’s dark shadow will ominously descend upon us, engulfing the landscape in a still, apocalyptic darkness. All of nature will react; the light will fade as if controlled by a celestial dimmer switch; the air will cool; birds will return to roost; camera shutters will click madly, trying in vain to capture the rapidly changing scene; and heartbeats will race.

The sun is vanishing — in the daytime!

Within seconds, the final beam of sunlight will burst through the rugged valleys along the moon’s edge: the magnificent “diamond ring.”

And then ... totality!

Some will cheer its arrival; some will weep at its splendor; and some will gaze in silent awe at the most glorious spectacle nature has to offer.

The place where the mighty sun once shone will then be a void around which the sun’s gossamer corona streams outward across the sapphire sky. In the twilight sky, the brighter planets will glisten like jewels, and along the horizon will glow the wonderfully warm colors of a 360-degree sunset.

If ever an alien landscape existed on Earth, this is it. Even the most jaded of sky watchers will be held captive by this haunting celestial theater.

Two minutes will pass like mere seconds, and the sun’s familiar rays will soon burst into view again. “No!” you’ll scream. “It can’t be over yet!” But the long-anticipated total solar eclipse of 2017 will then be history, etched forever in the minds of those who watched.

What a magnificent and exhilarating moment it will be — one that some will have waited an entire lifetime to experience.

For a few magical moments, we will have become one with the cosmos, in perfect synergy with the three most important bodies in our solar system. We will have been touched by the power of our universe in a way that’s impossible to describe and felt emotions impossible to communicate, for, you see, there are two types of people in this world: those who have experienced totality and those who have not.

And those of us who have will never, ever, be the same again.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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