Solar Eclipse: Apocalyptic, but not in ways you might expect

  • Published
  • By Col. Will Phillips and Tim Barela
  • Air Education and Training Command Safety Directorate

A total solar eclipse is nearly upon us, and it comes with some serious safety threats beyond the obvious risk of damage to your eyes.

The path of totality, which as the name suggests is the area where the full eclipse can be viewed, stretches from Texas to Maine, as well as into parts of Mexico and Canada. On April 8, the eclipse will traverse 15 states across the U.S., with an estimated 32 million people residing along the eclipse’s path and millions more expected to pour into those areas to get a glimpse of the apocalyptic event. Most people understand staring at the sun without eye protection can cause permanent damage, but what they might not consider are the multiple perils created by the over-crowding of rural areas as millions gather to see this awe-inspiring celestial spectacle.

Jonathan Upchurch, a transportation engineering consultant based in Ivins, Utah, chronicled the aftermath of the 2017 total solar eclipse, which he said was unlike any other special event. It even “eclipsed” major events like the Super Bowl, holiday celebrations and parades.

“At 5 million participants, it was likely the largest special event in U.S. history,” Upchurch said. “For comparison, 5 million people leaving the path of totality at once is like 71 sellout football games ending at the same time.”

This mass exodus jammed up America’s roadways for hours. Upchurch said along the interstates, traffic congestion lasted for up to 13 hours after totality. Along some rural roadways, the congestion persisted for more than 15 hours, he said.

George Chappel, Air Education and Training Command’s deputy director of safety and avid amateur astrophotographer, added that this backed up traffic causes some ripple effects.

“People who don’t plan ahead can run out of food, water or fuel,” he said. “Traffic accidents might rise from distracted drivers trying to watch the eclipse from a moving vehicle. These ‘eclipse chasers’ are also a danger to pedestrians.” Chappel recommends “arriving early and staying late,” and he encourages viewers to have enough fuel to get to their intended viewing area and back, because gas stations in the path of totality may have their fuel supplies exhausted as they become inundated with travelers.

Communication becomes another key consideration. High concentrations of cell phones in any single geographic area can overwhelm the cellular infrastructure, preventing phone calls and text messages from reaching their intended destinations or obstructing access to cellular data.  Unfortunately, the phone may indicate full signal strength and still not be able to transmit or receive, leaving users with a false sense of security. Consequently, eclipse viewers are highly encouraged to have a plan for what to do if they get separated from their party or if they plan to rendezvous with others prior to the event. Additionally, viewers should have a basic plan for their intended route and maybe even brush up on their roadmap reading skills, as navigation data may not be readily available on phones.

For those who live within the path of totality, Chappel suggests avoiding the roadways during and after the event. “Plan ahead and run your errands days before the eclipse to stock up on anything you might need. And if you’re on foot, watch out for distracted drivers – the solar eclipse Looky Lous.” 

Chappel also recommends viewers bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a basic first aid kit.

“The total solar eclipse only lasts minutes, but people are generally out for hours under the sun waiting for the big event,” he said. “It would be easy to get dehydrated or severely sunburned if not properly prepared.”

Viewers should also consider the risk, in some rural areas, posed by wildlife hazards like snakes or insects. If roads are blocked and communications are down, getting first responders on scene may take longer than normal. Therefore, viewers would do well to equip their vehicles with basic first aid supplies and sufficient knowledge of how to use them.

“Finally, the most serious threat to people, and the one you probably hear the most about, is the danger to the eyes,” Chappel said. “And it’s a legitimate threat. Viewing the eclipse without approved safety glasses can cause permanent eye damage.”

According to NASA, apart from the brief period when the moon completely blocks out the sun, it’s not safe to look directly at the sun, even if partially covered, without specialized eye protection. Additionally, “viewing any part of the bright sun through a camera lens, binoculars or a telescope without a special-purpose solar filter secured over the front of the optics will instantly cause severe eye injury,” NASA officials said.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, looking at the sun without the right eye protection — for even a short time — can damage your retina permanently and can even cause blindness. AAO eye experts warn that “ordinary sunglasses, even very dark ones, or homemade filters are not safe for looking at the sun.” They also caution against using eclipse glasses that are scratched or damaged.

USA Today’s Eduardo Cuevas wrote about a 26-year-old woman who viewed the 2017 solar eclipse through a faulty pair of glasses. “It was a worst-case scenario,” Cuevas wrote. The distinctive contours of the solar eclipse the woman stared at permanently etched onto her retina, he said.

“There is only one safe way to look directly at the sun, whether during an eclipse or not: through special-purpose solar filters,” the AAO says. “These solar filters are used in ‘eclipse glasses’ or in hand-held solar viewers. They must meet a very specific worldwide standard known as ISO 12312-2.”

The bottom line, Chappel says, is that while the moon is blocking out the sun, viewers need to take a few precautions to block out some of the safety hazards that come along with it. “Don’t turn positive memories into negative ones,” he said.


Be prepared!
Here are five quick tips for a safe and successful solar eclipse viewing experience:

  • View the eclipse from well clear of any roadway to avoid distracted drivers.
  • Bring sufficient water, food and a first aid kit.
  • Fill up with gas before driving out to remote locations in case local gas stations are full or run out of fuel.
  • Plan ahead of time for how you and your party will coordinate in areas where cell phones may not be functioning.
  • Use eyewear specially designed for looking at the sun. Typical sunglasses are not sufficient, and eclipse glasses are widely available at area retailers.

-- AETC Safety Directorate