By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley
The Palmetto State is known for its vibrant hot-orange sunsets, but come this August, many South Carolina cities will become a hub for a different kind of celestial event: a total solar eclipse.
This summer’s total solar eclipse is expected to momentarily engulf the United States in darkness on Monday, Aug. 21, beginning on the West Coast in Oregon and traveling diagonally until it exits through Charleston.
Steven Rodney, an assistant professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of South Carolina, says the eclipse is a truly unique occasion.
“What’s really spectacular about this one is its path across the country,” Rodney said. “It will start at about 10 a.m. in Oregon, and then will race across the country at roughly one to two thousand miles per hour. The shadow of the moon will cross the entire continental U.S., until it finally exits across South Carolina, crossing over all the major cities.”
The center of the eclipse’s path, known as the path of totality, is where viewers need to be to witness the total eclipse. Outside of the path, a partial eclipse is visible, but not nearly as spectacular.
According to Eclipse2017.org, the eclipse is expected to bring roughly 2 minutes and 12 seconds of darkness to Greenville, two minutes and 30 seconds of darkness to Columbia, and one minute and 33 seconds of darkness to Charleston. The path of totality also includes Clemson University, which will see a whopping two minutes and 37 seconds of darkness.
“Everybody in South Carolina will be able to easily access that narrow path of totality, which is only about 60-70 miles wide,” Rodney said. “That’s true across the entirety of the U.S.: anyone who really wants to could reach that path of totality.”
According to P. Chris Fragile, an astronomy professor at the College of Charleston, there are between two and seven eclipses at any given location on Earth per year. Any eclipse is visible if you’re under its path of totality, he says, however many pass over the middle of ocean or inaccessible regions of land, like Antarctica.
“It’s pretty much once in a lifetime where it works out that there is one passing close enough by that you have the chance to see it yourself,” Fragile said.
For some perspective, the last time a total solar eclipse was visible in South Carolina was in 1970 and before that, the last transcontinental total solar eclipse in the U.S. was 99 years ago. Luckily, today’s increased accessibility to technology and more sophisticated highway systems make conditions much more optimal for eclipse-viewing than they were in 1918. If the weather cooperates, NASA estimates that 1 million people could be traveling to the state to watch.
“We’re expecting this is going to be the most-viewed eclipse in human history,” Fragile said.
People from all over are coming to witness the event, and the Palmetto State’s hospitality and tourism industry is preparing for a much larger than usual late-August rush. While vacation season normally slows down as kids go back to school, this year is unusually busy—not to mention that school districts in Greenville, Columbia and Charleston have pushed back start dates because of the eclipse.
Greg Cornwell, planetarium and public program specialist at the Roper Mountain Science Center in Greenville, says that the center is expecting to see upwards of 2,000 people during its three-day long Eclipse Extravaganza weekend.
Cornwell, who is one of thousands of Americans who traveled to witness Hawaii’s 1991 total solar eclipse, is looking forward to being able to share this eclipse with the public.
“I am very excited,” Cornwell said. “It’s such a great opportunity to see this natural wonder in South Carolina. Especially in the upstate, it’s going to give us a chance to show off Greenville to the world.”
As a part of the weekend-long festivities, Roper Mountain will open its doors to the public, featuring music, activity tables and food trucks.
“What makes South Carolina such a neat place is that it’s going to be the nearest spot for much of the eastern seaboard to come and see it,” Cornwell said. “It’s going to be a real spectacle of nature.”
Amber Porter, a physics and astronomy lecturer at nearby Clemson University, has been planning for the eclipse for months and says that the Clemson viewing party will attract visitors from Florida to Maine. Porter estimates that there could be up to 50,000 people at Clemson for the eclipse. The event’s location hasn’t been announced yet, but Porter says it will feature eclipse classes, demos, and telescopes equipped with solar filters so that people can safely look at the sky.
After the eclipse passes over the upstate, it’ll make its way to Columbia, where there are over 35 events taking place during the eclipse weekend, from a space-themed concert by the S.C. Philharmonic to a VIP lunch and viewing party at Motor Supply Co. in the Vista. The S.C. State Museum, which is home to the Boeing Observatory, has already sold over 1,800 tickets for its Eclipse Day.
Andrea Mensink, director of communications at Experience Columbia SC, says that while events are filling up quickly, there are still openings available.
“No doubt we know it’s going to be a great weekend for visitors and residents alike,” Mensink said. “So if you haven’t made your reservations yet, now is the perfect time to plan.”
This planning includes hotel stays, too. Some hotels are offering special eclipse packages for the weekend, like the package at the King Charles Inn on Meeting Street in Charleston, which includes a lunch and lecture as well as a unique viewing opportunity aboard the Schooner Pride.
Ray Berrouët, sales director at the Inn, says that the eclipse has really changed the tone for August. “August tends to pick up, but the difference is that we’ve had tremendous pick up early on. Last year we were at 70 percent capacity, and this year we’re sold out,” Berrouët said.
Because so many people will be driving in just for the day, Perrin Lawson, vice president of business development at the Charleston Area Convention and Visitor Bureau, says it’s difficult to estimate exactly how many people will be in town.
“This is the last opportunity to see it before it heads out over the open ocean, so I think you’ll have lots of people who want to be here and who will be spending money along the way,” Lawson said.
While Lawson says they’ve received several calls from out of state and even out of country, experts stress that traffic is going to be heavy and that you don’t necessarily need to travel if you’re already within the path of totality. As long as you have a clear view of the sky, the only thing absolutely required are eclipse glasses to protect your eyes, which many venues will be handing out for free or can be ordered online.
“If the weather’s clear and we can see it, I really do think that for most people it’s going to be a once in a lifetime kind of opportunity,” Fragile said. “For South Carolina, this is going to be the best ever.”