Project: What is it like to experience totality
Status: Survey completed in 2011, published in 2012 in Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser
This project aimed to answer the question that everyone wants to know – what does it feel like during totality?
This sounds like a simple question to answer, but it is not for many reasons. Firstly, the totality experience is often completely overwhelming, so we are not able to easily make sense of it. Secondly, there are not the words to describe what it is like. And finally, we are often asked this question and expected to answer it in five words or less. Impossible!!
I chose to survey eclipse chasers for this project. Eclipse chasers are more likely to be able to make sense of totality by virtue of repeated experience. Using surveys allowed for a collation of common experiences to be identified, and open-ended questions allowed more detail and examples to be described.
Project: A detailed case study of the first time eclipse experience – “The moment I lost my mind”.
Status: Completed, case study presented at International Adventure Travel Conference at Sheffield Hallam University in 2015; and also as part of a lecture series on board the Astor in 2015, and also in several further presentations
Following the total eclipse of 2012 in my home region, I interviewed many locals and visitors about their first time eclipse experience, as part of the research for my third book. One of these accounts by Wayne was especially powerful. This very detailed and emotive case study is a powerful way to demonstrate how an ordinary person living in the path of totality can be impacted by this event.
The abstract of the presentation at the International Adventure Travel Conference at Sheffield Hallam University is as follows:
“The moment I lost my mind”: The first time total solar eclipse experience
Keywords total solar eclipse, totality, transformation, awe, perspective, phenomenology, IPA, experiential travel
Introduction On 20th March 2015, a total solar eclipse was visible within a path of totality that made landfall in only two remote locations – the Faroe Islands and Svalbard. The UK, Ireland and Northern Europe saw a partial solar eclipse.
A total solar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Moon and Earth are in complete alignment. During totality, the central shadow of the Moon races across the surface of the Earth, leaving a deep darkness that lasts for a few minutes. The eclipsed Sun appears to be like a universal eye looking down. It is the only time when the wispy ethereal light of the Sun’s corona is visible with the naked eye, and it is a breathtaking sight. The experience is eerie and dramatic, and many describe it as overwhelming and life-changing.
An increasingly popular subculture of adventure travel is eclipse chasing – travelling the world to stand in the Moon’s shadow once every 18 months on average. Very few people can relate to why seemingly normal people do this, as the experience is one that is difficult to describe. The general public are left uninformed about the uniqueness of totality, and why even a 99% partial eclipse is nowhere near the 100% totality experience.
This presentation will use the analysis of a single case study to provide detailed insights into the totality experience. There are two broad research questions in this phenomenological study – what is it like to experience your first total solar eclipse, and how does the experience change your life.
Method Following the total solar eclipse of 2012 in Australia, those living and visiting the path of totality were invited to complete an online survey outlining their experiences. From approximately 80 people who completed the survey, 15 were selected as suitable for phenomenological interview due to their detailed, rich descriptions in the open-ended questions. Interviews were conducted, often lasting over two hours, and accounts were transcribed and analysed using Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). This presentation outlines the analysis of just one individual to allow an in-depth understanding of the experience and impact. The person selected is Wayne, a 48 year old environmentalist who just happened to relocate to within the path of totality the year before the eclipse.
Findings / discussion Wayne described himself as ‘eclipse ignorant’ before the eclipse, where he was caught by surprise at the intensity of the event. He described his first totality experience as ‘mind-blowing’, which was further broken down into three key themes: feeling oblivious to himself and the world around him; feeling privileged and lucky; and in awe of a greater power. The eclipse experience had a profound effect on Wayne, which seemed to reconfirm his life values in three ways: the eclipse was a momentous event that served as a ‘reality check’ on life; the experience confirmed he was on the right path; and he had found a new path of inspiration. At the time of interview three weeks after the eclipse, Wayne had already made plans to travel to see another total solar eclipse, and remained highly animated about his experience.
Conclusion Phenomenological research methods provide a useful way of understand intense awe experiences. This project looking at the first time totality experience is part of a larger programme of research exploring the psychology of eclipses. It is only by sharing personal accounts of the eclipse experience that we can convey to others why it is so powerful, and why increasing numbers are chasing eclipses to experience those magical few minutes.
Project: What motivates eclipse chasers?
Status: Interviews completed in 2011, published in 2012 Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser using nine case examples
For some people, seeing a total solar eclipse seems to ignite a never-ending source of motivation that sees them through a lifetime. Having felt this myself, I was curious about what drives us eclipse chasers – where does that passion come from, and why is it so strong that it seems to overtake our plans and become a way of life?
I was able to identify how every eclipse is different, ensuring there was novelty ever time and avoiding saturation that would come with other repetitive events. Also, most eclipse chasers were developing a sense of mastery over some aspect of their eclipse chasing, or using their existing skills to help others. Psychological research has shown that these factors are strong drivers, and also contribute to a meaningful life.
Project: Researching eclipse weather using citizen science
Status: Locals contributing photos of the Sun at eclipse time one year before the eclipse. Project completed, and article published in the December 2014 edition of The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
One of the concerns about the 2015 was the weather in the arctic region in March. Weather statistics for the Faroe Islands taken from 20 years of historical records showed a high occurrence of cloud and precipitation in March. However, there were two problems with using this historical data for eclipse planning. Firstly, the average weather statistics at one location in the Faroe Islands tell us nothing about the circumstances at locations across the Islands. And secondly, the average monthly weather statistics tell us little about the weather at ‘eclipse time’ – from 8.40 to 10.40am.
For these reasons, Dr Geoff Sims – Australian Astrophysicist and fellow eclipse chaser – led a citizen science project to obtain more accurate weather data for eclipse time. Citizen science is where researchers involve the community to collect data to answer a specific question. In this case, we wanted to know what the weather was like at eclipse time for the whole month of March in 2014, at various locations across the islands. A number of locals took photographs of the Sun every morning from their home or work location. These photographs were then rated using a 5 point scale, from clear skies to completely overcast. The observations were also compared with the six-hour forecast to determine accuracy of predictions.
The following generalisations could be made:
- as predicted, the was a lot of cloud. However, on most days the Sun could be seen in at least one location at eclipse time;
- there were several days where the weather was clear over most of the archipelago at eclipse time;
- some locations in the islands were more frequently cloudier than others at eclipse time, giving worse viewing odds;
- the six-hour weather forecasts were not entirely accurate
Spatial mapping captured the frequency of days in March 204 where the cloud covered the Sun at 9.40am – totality time. This project allowed us to gather information about a practical problem in a way that was quick, inexpensive and which involved the local community one year in advance of the total eclipse. Despite this, we were still very much at the whim of Mother Nature on 20th March 2015. We can explore historical climate patterns, but as the saying goes, climate is what we expect, and weather is what we get.
Project: Eclipse chaser plans for the next three total eclipses
Status: Survey completed in early 2014, results presented at the Nordic Eclipse Conference in March 2014 in the Faroe Islands
In early 2014 I undertook a brief survey of eclipse chasers to explore what their plans were for the next three total solar eclipses – 2015, 2016, and 2017. The response rate was quite low at 10%, so these results are not generalizable.
For those who did respond, this survey indicated that 60% were definitely planning to travel to the 2015 total eclipse in the Arctic region; 41% to the 2016 eclipse in Indonesia, and a whopping 94% to the U.S. eclipse in 2017.