Flashback to August 21, 2017, around 1:15pm. Places like Goreville, Illinois, are filled to the brim with enthusiastic hopefuls looking at the sky, waiting for darkness to drown it out. The “Great American Eclipse” stirred a whole buzz of excitement, but it also had some interesting scientific and societal impacts.
Let’s start with a little bit of atmospheric science that we all experienced at the ground level. Aside from the mid afternoon mirroring the middle of the night, as the moon eclipsed the sun, parts of America in the path of totality experienced temperature drops up to 7ºF. There were also spikes in dew point temperature (the temperature at which fog would form) up to 9ºF. The combination of these factors caused a large spike in relative humidity in these places. In addition to the increase in vehicular emissions from the hordes of viewers (South Carolina was estimated to have as many as 2 million visitors), this led to an acute peak in concentrations of airborne pollutants.
On the other hand, something interesting was happening further up in the atmosphere—but we aren’t exactly sure what that is. While many of us were gawking through eclipse glasses, researchers at eleven NASA-funded projects were gathering data about the effect of the moon’s shadow on the ionosphere (a layer of the earth’s atmosphere where particles are ionized by extreme solar radiation). The ionosphere guards humanity against the violence this radiation, which is temporarily extinguished during the eclipse. Researchers will use nature’s experimental study the solar radiation input and the response of the ionosphere.
However, the eclipse actually had some other societal effects there were really quite spectacular. First, the spark of interest from this magnificent event gave scientists the opportunity to educate a great number of people. Saluki Stadium at Southern Illinois University was converted into a science exposition in the days preceding the event with representatives from prestigious institutions such as NASA and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Furthermore, the influx of visitors to small towns opened up the possibility for small businesses to receive large payouts. For example, individuals in Carbondale, Illinois, were able to rent spots for people to camp overnight—in some cases for more than $200 a spot!
In conclusion, the eclipse was super cool! It had impacts from the ionosphere to small towns across America, and managed to pique interest in science just as broadly. Make sure to stay tuned for the next eclipse over North America coming up in 2024.
Article by Remy CrowleyFarenga | Photograph by Dan Corry