People viewing the eclipse

Driftless Dark Skies: Spring Spectacles (May, 2024)

This spring, I experienced two of the most awesome astronomical events of my life. I journeyed 450 miles to the path of totality in southern Illinois to watch the Moon eclipse the Sun on Monday, April 8. Just a month later, on the weekend of May 10-12, I drove a shorter distance of 8 miles to Sauk County WI to be wowed by the northern lights. I am still pondering how and why they filled me with such awe.

I started anticipating the April 8 Total Solar Eclipse as soon as I returned home from watching my first Total Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017 in the sandhills of western Nebraska. I had spent much of the summer of 2017 sharing dozens of public programs throughout the Driftless Area and beyond. For all that explaining and evangelizing, the eclipse still caught me by surprise. I don’t think anything ever prepares you for the sight of the Sun disappearing in the afternoon and a black hole appearing in the sky. But I felt as ready as I could be.

We spent a lot of time before this eclipse studying weather predictions and maps for possible viewing locations. A few days before the eclipse, we settled on Jefferson County IL. We wanted to avoid crowded parks and festivals. A friend who grew up there suggested we view from her family cemetery. Sadly, she needed to stay home to care for her parents. Smith Cemetery near Opdyke and Belle Rive was the serene spot we imagined with a few cedars for shade. We had some discussion about the appropriateness of setting up in a cemetery and whether it might be taken as disrespectful. I hoped folks understood that skywatching is about the most reverential thing I know to do.

Much of the time before the eclipse seemed familiar from 2017. We woke early and drove through the fog on rural roads into the path of totality. We set up our chairs and telescopes, gathered in a circle, reenacted the 1974 story “Someone is Eating the Sun”, got excited at first contact when the partial eclipse began, watched crescent suns cast between the needles of the cedars and through the holes of our colanders, felt the temperature drop 25 degrees, heard barred owls hooting, watched the eclipse progress through our telescopes, and admired several solar prominences. There is a leisurely pace to enjoying the partial phases of an eclipse.

Things happen much more quickly as you near totality. There is a checklist of the many things to watch for: strange bird behavior, sharpening of shadows, dimming of colors, shadow bands, Baily’s Beads, diamond ring, prominences, chromosphere, planets, stars, etc. Totality was four minutes (twice as long as 2017), and I spent a lot of time considering what I most wanted to experience during that brief time. I settled on three things. This time, I wanted to appreciate the eclipsed Sun through binoculars. The view was primal: the black of the New Moon making a hole in the sky, the white of the corona streaming out from the Sun in all directions, the red of solar prominences arcing off the edge of the Sun. This time, I wanted to look around more and experience the sky dark overhead but with a golden glow above the horizon in every direction and the eerie light. This time, I wanted to watch my friends being eclipsed. I saw siblings laughing and crying together. I saw a friend who had planned to watch with her husband now carrying on after his death and watching without him. I saw another friend who had been unsure about the long journey but deciding a few days earlier to join our crew and now peacefully pondering the eclipse. I saw a mom who experienced her first eclipse in 1970 while pregnant with her first child now inseparably embraced by her adult daughter. There we all were as the shadow of the Moon passed over us together.

the green and purple northern lightsIt was such a profoundly sublime experience that I felt like it was taking weeks to return to the everyday world. Then the northern lights came our way. Looking back, I see that they might have been foreshadowed by the increased solar activity I witnessed during the solar eclipse with such a bright corona and the many prominences. Solar eclipses are predictable centuries ahead of time. Not so for auroras. Yet, I could feel this one coming. There were reports of a half dozen coronal mass ejections headed towards Earth. There was the huge sunspot group I spotted when I looked at the Sun with my eclipse viewers. There was the Extreme and Severe Geomagnetic Storm Warning from NOAA that they had not issued in twenty years. There were all the photos of red skies from our friends in Europe where it was already night. And there was the steady stream of data from NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCVR) a million miles away showing the solar wind strengthening in speed and density that would reach us in half an hour.

I was waiting for the sky to darken on Friday night when I went out to my drive to see how the clouds were clearing. I was caught by surprise when I saw a purple sky through the clouds. The northern lights were visible at twilight. I hurried to my dark sky spot and stayed there until 4am when dawn began to brighten the sky. I remember the Halloween Storms of 2003 and the great displays in March and April of 2023. There was no end to this one. The red and purple shifted to a steady white with periods of pink and green. After midnight, there was much more dancing of the lights as they spread from horizon to horizon. At times the lights pulsed and other times they seemed to form a portal high overhead. As with the eclipse, I remembered to look away and to take in the entire experience. I have never seen a landscape lit up so much by northern lights. It was like being out during Full Moon. And I remembered to watch and listen to the people as they so enthusiastically enjoyed the eclipse.

The northern lights were predicted to continue for a second night on Saturday. I was in my recliner by twilight ready and looking north for an encore. They were more subtle this time. We could not see anything at first, but a friend took test shots with her camera and captured some color too faint for our eyes. Then we saw a soft glow along the horizon, and then the light spiking upwards and beginning to shimmer a bit. There was an arch of white light in the north. Things peaked around 11:30 as the green lights danced higher in the sky. Then they subsided. I figured that was the curtain call for the spectacular northern lights.

There won’t be total solar eclipses visible again in the continental United States until 2044 and 2045, and we have to wait until 2099 for one to pass through the Driftless Area. But there should be opportunities to experience auroras as we head into a period of increased solar activity. Unlike eclipses, it’s not possible to give a precise time for when we will see northern lights. They are really challenging to predict. The readiness is all. Scout out a dark and starry spot for yourself beforehand and head there when you hear warnings and reports. Set up your chair facing north, settle in, enjoy the stars, listen for frogs and owls and whippoorwills, chat with your friends, sip your tea, nibble on your snacks, put away your phone, adjust your expectations, and let your eyes adapt to the dark. There is much to awe us in the night. And much that has to align to experience these rare events: clear skies, dark and quiet locations, moon phase, etc. Eclipses and auroras are both enjoyed best from a memorable location with a merry crew. Hope you get to experience similar spectacles as you are skywatching this spring and beyond!

There are public astronomy programs at Wyalusing State Park on May 25, at Wildcat Mountain State Park on May 26, and at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on June 1 and 4.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador , with the International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate, and the International Astronomical Union as a Dark Sky Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.

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