Skip to content

Total solar eclipse 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity, says prof

If witnessing total solar eclipse is on bucket list, it's worth the drive to Hamilton, says Lakehead astronomy professor
A map showing where to see solar eclipses until 2040. The total eclipses are in blue.

Even though Barrie won’t be entirely in the “path of totality” for next week's total eclipse, it will still be a “pretty cool” sight, according to one expert.

Wolfe Wall, an astronomy professor at Lakehead University for more than two decades, said Barrie, like Thunder Bay, where he teaches, won’t experience a total solar eclipse.

“It’s just going to be a partial eclipse. The moon is coming between the sun and the Earth and casting a shadow on the Earth. There are two parts of a shadow. One part is where all the light is blocked off. The other part is where the moon is just covering a little bit of the sun,” he explained.

In order to experience a total eclipse on April 8, Wall suggests travelling the 149 kilometres from Barrie to Hamilton.

“If you do that, then you will get a minute-and-a-half of total eclipse. Considering what the future has in store, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said. “It’s also the most spectacular part. It’s the part where you can see clearly the corona, which is a glow around the sun. That is interesting. When the moon first fully covers the sun, you get something called a Baily’s bead — diamond ring or, more rarely, double diamond ring effects — which is a spectacular thing to see as well.”

Most of the province will not be in the path of totality, he noted. However, the cities of Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Kingston and Cornwall will see a total eclipse.

“There isn’t going to be a minute-and-a-half like that in Barrie, but there will be in Hamilton. You will have to travel thousands and thousands of miles and wait years to get an opportunity again. If it’s on your bucket list — and I’ve never seen one before — I’d suggest it. It’s nice and fun to watch it with your own eyes, as it were, to see the little piece of the sun that gets taken out by the moon. That’s kind of a cool thing to see,” Wall said.

“If you look at the map, the sharp shadow cast by the moon is on a very small part of the Earth. This is super special because that part of the Earth is close to there. That won’t happen for another 50 years, at least.”

When the Earth goes around the sun, it does so in a flat plane, he explained, adding the moon rotates around the Earth in a similar plane, but it’s at a bit of an angle to the ecliptic, meaning it only crosses the ecliptic at two places.

Those are called nodes, he added.

“To get a solar eclipse, you have to have the sun being very close to one of those two nodes, and that happens, like, twice a year, and that has to be close to the moon at the time the moon is new. Every eclipse season, which happens twice a year, somewhere on Earth gets to see at least a partial eclipse,” he said.

It’s only during a total solar eclipse, Wall noted, that people can safely view it without special glasses, during that minute-and-a-half.

The best items for that, he said, are special eclipse glasses, which Wall said he purchased for $3 on Amazon.

“It’s not expensive. There’s an ISO rating that says you’re not going to go blind if you use them to stare at the sun. When I put them on, I can’t see anything unless I am looking directly at the sun. That’s how strong these are,” he said.

The solar eclipse is an exciting phenomenon Canadians get to witness this year, said local optometrist Dr. Naghmeh Thompson. That said, it’s important everyone enjoys it in a safe manner by protecting their eyes from potential harm.

“We’re always told not to stare at the sun. The rays emit ultraviolet and infrared radiation, which can be harmful to the eye, and also visible light,” she explained.

To safely view the eclipse, Thompson said specialized solar eclipse filters or glasses are required, and should meet the ISO 12312-2 international safety standard. She also suggests purchasing them from a reputable supplier.

“Regular sunglasses, even with a dark tint, are still not safe for viewing,” she noted. “When we view an eclipse without proper protection, our eyes are exposed to the solar radiation, which can damage the retina, the light-sensitive tissue in the back of the eye.”

Symptoms of solar retinopathy, she added, typically occur within hours after exposure and may include blurry vision, eye pain, a blind spot in the central vision, or distortion.

Welding glasses would likely be another good option, Wall noted, adding although using a phone is a safe option, it would be “pretty unsatisfying”. 

Wall has even created a pinhole camera using a milk carton, which is another option, though would offer a pretty “small” view.

“It is disappointingly small, but the truth is the sun is disappointingly small. Although it’s important to us, the diameter takes up about a half a degree of angle … as is the moon … and that’s sort of why we get these spectacular solar eclipses, because the moon and the sun are almost at the same angle, so the moon nearly perfectly covers up the sun,” he said.

The light from the sun during an eclipse, Wall noted, isn’t any more dangerous to the eyes than it would be at any other time or day, but given the rarity of an eclipse, he acknowledged people would likely be more apt to “look up” and stare.

“If you stare at the sun right now, and do it for long enough, you will end up with permanent eye damage. Quite possibly, 20 seconds might be long enough. I know from my own experimental experience, I don’t want to look at the sun much more than half a second. The trouble is you might be tempted to stare at it for a long time,” he said.

The last partial eclipse, recalled Wall, occurred on Christmas Day in 2001, so the fact there are places in Ontario where a total eclipse will occur is “really special,” he said, adding he’s keeping his fingers crossed for a clear sky on April 8.

“Maybe it’s totally obvious, but I should mention, in the event of cloud cover, it’s really a non-event,” he said.