Author: Kate

The Eclipse Chasing Psychologist
13 Mar 2017

Changing plans – lessons from Wile E. Coyote

intro

I’ve been feeling a lot like Wile E. Coyote lately. Clever and creative in his planning to achieve his one goal – to get the bird – his plans would backfire spectacularly in the execution. I’d like to think my plans are a little sounder than Wile E’s plans. Unlike him, however, I’m facing one key obstacle that is stopping me from achieving my goal. My immigration visa is needed before I can get to the US, and it seems just out of my reach.

The need to immigrate

Australians and British citizens are able to visit the US for three months easily with a visa waiver. However, to work in the US you require a visa, and usually an employer willing to sponsor you. As ‘Eclipse Planning Consultant’ is not really a job that has an employer, I went down the route of immigration as an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability”.   That is, I had to be a highly educated professional (three degrees – check!); an internationally recognized expert (author, researcher, and pretty much one of the only eclipse consultants around, who wrote the only guidance document on how to plan – check!); and to be engaging in activities that are of national interest (total solar eclipse for the first time in the US in almost 40 years, visible from 14 states with a partial across the whole continent – check!).

card genius

After submitting a two-volume opus of my life’s work as evidence, twice, I was judged to have met these criteria back in November. And what a happy day that was!

I was informed that there was a process that would take an additional two months or so. There remained additional steps in the meantime that I undertook as quickly as possible – police checks from two countries, listings of every single place I lived since the age of 18 years, and disclosures of all sorts of other personal information that are then used to judge you in ways you can’t really understand. More documents, submissions and explanations, along with payments at every step along the way.  I am THIS close.

Things you can control… 

In January I went ahead with an Expressions of Interest for my path of totality planning tour, which helped to determine what communities on the ground were looking for. From this, I identified:

  • 31 communities expressed strong interest in being part of my tour
  • 90 days of activities were requested
  • 10 states were represented across the path of totality

I then started to make more detailed plans. However, as time was marching on my estimated leaving date was fast approaching – still with no visa interview date.

… versus things you cannot control 

Then came some sudden changes to US immigration rules. Although my visa application is not directly affected, the indirect effect is that there are more demands on the work involved at the National Visa Centre, where my application still awaits, sitting on a desk somewhere and waiting for a final confirmation before it can be sent to London for the last remaining interviews.

In early February I made the decision to delay the start of the tour for a further month to allow for more time.  This took a bit of revision, and compromised some of my activities, but I knew it would still be possible.  

Unfortunately, further delays were announced last week now make my tour plans unviable. I have already requested permission to expedite my visa processing on grounds of national interest, and this has initially been unsuccessful.   I am trying repeatedly, and will continue to do so, until I have my visa in my hand.

What this means in practice

After two years of planning, I have had to let my path of totality planning tour go.  Anyone who knows me personally knows how long I have been talking and planning this, and how difficult this decision has been.  Much like Wile E. Coyote does, I have gone back to the drawing board to come up with a new creative way of meeting needs on the ground in a much-reduced time frame.

I am frustrated that I have had to turn down requests to participate in community events, eclipse planning conferences, astronomy events, documentaries and other media. I have had to instead direct my energies towards overcoming the many visa hurdles by collating and documenting detailed evidence, completing forms, chasing up requests. In my years of being involved in eclipse planning, I have never faced barriers quite like this.

Despite this, I have been supporting many communities from afar as best I can, and I am still planning to be available for in-community support along the path of totality.

Although it is likely that I will arrive in May, currently I am not able to agree any events or activities for that month.   I am, however, now confirming activities for June and beyond.  The biggest changes:

  • I will no longer be doing a LINEAR tour of the path of totality
  • I will no longer be visiting all states within the path
  • I will no longer be based in a fifth wheel camper, and instead will use hotels as my base

There are a few benefits from my new revised plan. I can be more flexible with my schedule, as I do not have to travel in a linear fashion. I also have been able to review my fee structure too.  So if you are interested in bringing me to your community, or to have me as part of your event or conference or as a speaker, then get in touch.

When I eventually do make it to the US, I will do all I can to share my experiences, knowledge, research and expertise. My window to do this will be much smaller than I ever intended, however I am keen to reach as many people as possible.

I have seen 10 total solar eclipses all around the world, in my 18 year chasing career. Every one is special and unique, but there is nothing like experiencing totality within your home community. This happened for me in 2012, and is the reason why I am so passionate about helping communities prepare. I’m not giving up.

catches at end

How can you help?

Many have already got in touch with offers of support, and some of you have already put something in writing to help expedite my case. If you are in a position where you feel I have already benefited you, or am about to benefit you, then please do consider putting something in an email to me that highlights this that I can send on. It can be short, like a testimonial, or longer – whatever you wish to write.  These comments will be passed on in my requests to expedite my visa, and every little bit helps.

In the end, Wile E. Coyote did indeed catch the road runner.  He is a lesson in perseverance and creativity.  And I know my visa will come through too – it just can’t come soon enough.

05 Jan 2017

The Tour – Expressions of Interest

press-release

 

 

It’s official.  I am now taking ‘Expressions of Interest‘ from communities that would like to be included in my Being in the Shadow Path of Totality Tour.

The tour is expected to commence in April in South Carolina, and end in July in Oregon – final dates will be confirmed at the end of January.  At the moment, I am still awaiting the final stages of my US visa process, and therefore I cannot confirm any dates.  However, I can now start planning. Woohoo!!

We will be traveling in a fifth wheel camper, and staying at RV sites within each community in order to keep costs to a minimum whilst ensuring flexibility and a mobile workspace.  From coast to coast, across the US, helping to prepare for the eclipse.

I will be ensuring the tour is high profile, and will engage in extensive media throughout, ensuring that all of the communities involved in the tour will greatly benefit from the extensive media exposure.  The results of this can be considerable.  For example, the PR value of the media from the 62 international media outlets that were reporting from the Faroe Islands in 2015, where I was the Eclipse Planning Consultant, was equivalent to US$22 million.  Media interest across the US and the world is going to be considerably greater for the 2017 total eclipse.  That’s big buckaroos.

I will, of course, be unable to visit each of the 1,000+ communities that are along the path of totality. Instead I will have to prioritise those communities that are keen to host me – that is, those that complete this form to let me know what their needs and wishes are.

I am recommending a stay of five days in each community to ensure that I can make a significant difference for each of the communities I visit.

Once you link to the form, you will see that each page has the range of events that I can offer, from planning consulting, workshops, community engagement, stakeholder engagement, book launch activities, public lectures etc.  If you are an eclipse coordinator, please complete the form, ticking those events of interest.

I will then be able to collate this information, start plotting and planning a rough tour outline, and will then get back to you regarding an estimated cost based on your preferences, an estimated time frame, and more detailed information about confirming plans.  It’s simple.

 

tour-poster

 

To make sure your region is included, complete the ‘Expressions of Interest’ Form by 27 January AT THE LATEST.  I’ve been talking about doing this tour for years, literally, and I can’t believe we have now reached the time when I am about to start planning.  Let me help to make it awesome for your community.

06 Dec 2016

How many visitors will come for the eclipse?

How many people will come for the eclipse?
Everyone will be looking up on eclipse day.

As an expert eclipse planning consultant, the most common question I get asked is this – how many people will come to our region for the eclipse?

This is a question that is very difficult to predict with any accuracy. It depends on so many factors – including location along the path, proximity to the center-line, climate statistics and weather on the day, road networks, general appeal, proximity to other tourist attractions, and population of the region.

However, this is the question that communities do need an answer to. Without any estimates, effective planning is difficult. So, what have other regions done in the past when estimating crowds, and how accurate were these estimates?

Accuracy of past estimates

In 2012, initial estimates for the Far North Queensland total eclipse was 30,000, based upon the crowd attending a previous total eclipse in South Australia in 2002.  In the end, 60,000 people descended on the area specifically for the eclipse, staying an average of four days. Accommodation in the region was at full capacity, and the eclipse brought in an estimated Aus $130 million for the local economy. The eclipse was indeed much larger than everyone had imagined.

In 2015, we estimated 5,000 eclipse tourists would come to the Faroe Islands, taking into account remoteness and poor weather predictions. Even this number, however, required creative planning, in a country with only 800 hotel beds. In the end, 11,400 eclipse tourists came, staying for an average five days, generating US $9.5 million for the local economy. Again, the eclipse was much larger than expected – despite the poorer weather prospects.

Even going further back than these recent examples, people have reported that regions tend to underestimate visitor numbers. Every time a total solar eclipse occurs, new generations of eclipse chasers are born, eager to repeat the experience.   Eclipse chaser numbers will only keep growing.

Features that make the 2017 eclipse especially appealing

In my 17 years of eclipse chasing, I have had to travel to some very remote, unusual locations in order to get to the path of totality.  However, the path of totality for 2017 is easily accessible, with good weather prospects, occurring in a country of great appeal, with many unique opportunities for tourism across the path.

The US is the second most visited country in the world, with 77.5 million visitors in 2015. August is already one of the most popular months for visitors. There is no doubt that the interest in this eclipse will be unprecedented.

Michael Zeiler at Great American Eclipse has calculated that 12.2 million people live within the path of totality. 88 million Americans live within 200 miles of the path of totality – which is easy driving distance. It really is unknown how many millions will travel on the day.

Population estimates along the path of totality
Population estimates along the path of totality. (c) Michael Zeiler, www.GreatAmericanEclipse.com

The western sections of the path are most popular amongst eclipse chasers as the weather outlook is more optimistic – yet it is much more sparsely populated. The more densely populated eastern half of the path may have the largest crowds, but generally there are lower chances of clear skies. Ultimately, many believe that this will balance things out, and there is plenty of room along the path for everyone.

How to come up with estimated numbers for your region

I have now talked through this issue with many communities along the path. The key people involved in these discussions are the tourism representatives, local council, and emergency planning chiefs. The aim is to identify a way to calculate total visitor numbers – keeping in mind that these numbers are estimates. Here is a very simple overview.

Largest community event multiplied by the ‘x factor’

The key question is – what is the largest event that is currently hosted in your region? It may be the State Fair, New Years Eve celebrations, 4th of July celebrations, or a music festival.  This largest event shows the draw of your community. Essentially, these attendees will be the same people who will be coming to celebrate the eclipse. But a few more things need to be considered – additional family and friends, those who have sought out the region specifically and have booked; and the many more who will drive in on the day.

So, the advice is to consider your largest crowd, and then multiply this with ‘the x factor’ – this could mean multiplying by 1.5, or 2, or 2.5. This all depends upon the many factors mentioned above, and really does need to be personalized to your community. I told you eclipse planning had many unknowns.

Calculate your maximum capacity

I think it’s important that all communities consider this – What is the maximum number of people who can be safely catered for, and how can you ensure that this is managed. And what is the plan if this is exceeded.

Knowing this figure gives a feeling of control, rather than things being completely unknown, and plans can be made. This can be considered roughly by looking at the following:

  • The population of the region – these people are most likely to remain in the community to view the eclipse;
  • Friends and family of the population – if you live in the path, you will become immensely popular with anyone living outside of the path, who will want to stay with you. You can account for this by perhaps multiplying the population by 2, or else calculating an extra two people per household
  • Total formal accommodation capacity (including hotels, B&B’s, official camping and RV sites)
  • Additional soft capacity (including temporary arrangements such as additional camping grounds, overnight car park facilities, fields that may be used etc)
  • The numbers in tour groups coming in but who may be staying elsewhere

Then consider those additional unknowns, who will be driving in for the day. What is an acceptable level of unknown visitors who can be accommodated for on the day, when you are already at full capacity, with regards to parking and facilities?

Having an estimate is important for planning. I have been encouraging many regions to record how they have calculated their estimates, so that these can be compared to final visitor numbers, allowing some way of working out how accurate numbers could be predicted. This will help to plan for future eclipses – including the next one across the US in 2024.

Eclipse ‘hotspots’

Several locations along the path may be potential ‘hotspots’ for eclipse visitors to congregate. These are those with the best chances of good weather; those with outstanding nature opportunities, and those with something of unique interest.

For example, Grand Teton National Park is one of the few parks along the path. This region is already a high demand tourist area, already at full capacity during August over the last few years. Many people consider this to be the ‘ultimate’ eclipse viewing destination (I’m one of them – my tour is based in Teton village). But the region clearly will not be able to cope unless special considerations are made.

Similarly, Carbondale in Illinois may be another ‘hotspot’, as they are in the unique position of being at the ‘eclipse crossroads’ for the 2017 path and also the 2024 path. Also, Madras in Oregon was identified as having one of the best chances of clear skies, and was one of the first regions to reach full capacity.

If you are in an eclipse ‘hotspot’, then it is essential to develop action plans to avoid over-capacity. Worth exploring are options to control access, and the ability to pre-register interest, or having a lottery system for different venues. Also to be considered are access to food and toilets. It is a far less stressful experience for everybody if people know upfront that they can or cannot get to their preferred viewing location, rather than have to be turned away on the day. Preventing problems from occurring in the first place is in everyone’s interest.

Conclusion

Eclipse planning may be unique and have quite a few unknowns. All but the smallest communities have the expertise to plan a great eclipse experience and associated events for their community and visitors. All you need to do is remember the following: 

Eclipse planning approach - do what you already do, then scale up
There are many unknowns in eclipse planning, but you’ve got this!

If you are involved in planning for your community and want to talk through the issue of estimating numbers, or your eclipse plans in general, then feel free to get in touch for a free Zoom consultation.

30 Nov 2016

Why I help communities prepare for the total solar eclipse

Lecture to the crowds in Eidi on eclipse morning.
Addressing the Eidi community and my tour group with a pre-eclipse briefing on eclipse morning, 2015. (c) Independent Traveller, 2015

 

When a total eclipse occurs in your community, residents and visitors alike will remember it for a lifetime. Having been involved in community eclipse planning for several years now, both within my own community in Australia in 2012, and then as the Eclipse Consultant in the Faroe Islands for 2015, I know from personal experience that it is a challenging, exciting and hugely rewarding role.

A total solar eclipse usually occurs in regions that have no living memory of such an event. Even those who are put in charge of planning for it have never experienced the phenomenon. The community, therefore, will not know what an eclipse is, what it means for them and what they should do to prepare. Having chased eclipses around the world for 18 years, I have seen many regions who have been ill-prepared, or that have failed to take advantage of this unique opportunity to benefit their region. So many times I have heard the comment “we had no idea it was going to be so big!”

From eclipse chaser to eclipse planner 

The turning point for me was the total eclipse of 2012, when the path of totality occurred in my home region of North Queensland, Australia. For the first time, I was a local within the community in the lead up to the eclipse. This gave me unique insights into the local perspective – and highlighted that key eclipse messages were not getting through. I spoke to many people who did not see that the eclipse was relevant to them, with some stating they were planning to leave the region to ‘avoid the chaos’.

I then went to work doing as much outreach as I could to ensure that my fellow locals knew the eclipse wasn’t just for tourists or scientists – but rather a special event for the whole community. And boy was it special! There is nothing like seeing a total eclipse in your home community.

I was already interviewing locals before and after the eclipse for my own eclipse research. I included eclipse planners in these interviews to capture the planning process. I learned some important things about eclipse planning – what worked, what didn’t, what was overlooked, and what would be done differently. Hindsight can be a wonderful thing.

Applying lessons from research and practice

I then put these hindsight lessons into practice, and started visiting and engaging with the key organisations in the Faroe Islands in preparation for the March 2015 total eclipse. I felt very privileged to be a part of that wonderful, small, and friendly community as their Eclipse Planning Consultant. I visited several times – two years before the eclipse, and again the year before, and finally relocating there in the weeks before the eclipse. My role was to help with the final stages of planning, prepare materials, and to engage with stakeholders and the community through events and the local media. I also helped coordinate what was to become the media frenzy that occurs in the days before every eclipse.   The wonderful Faroese were ready and waiting for the eclipse and embraced it – and me – with open arms.  The eclipse was wonderful – even though it was cloudy. I will always feel a part of the community there, and still feel so privileged that I could help.

Dr Kate Russo, eclipse planning
Counting down to eclipse day within the community, with Torstein Kristiansen, local eclipse coordinator. (c) Torstein Kristiansen, 2015

Lessons from the past and guidance for the future

Following the eclipse, I again interviewed those involved in planning to gain further insights into the planning process. I then spent months analyzing the planning process based upon these many interviews from 2012, and 2015. I extracted the key aspects, and identified some important strategies. And having had experience of this within my psychology career, I published these important processes as a White Paper.

This White Paper on Community Eclipse Planning is the result of what I have learned through all of these activities over the years. I have shared this freely with those who are lucky enough to be living within a future path of totality. I am also delighted that most of the communities across the U.S. have been using my White Paper as a starting point to help their community prepare for this wonderful event. It is the only guidance there is on how to prepare a community for a total solar eclipse. To help get eclipse coordinators started, I have been doing free consultations to help translate general principals to each unique community. I will also be visiting communities during my four month path of totality tour, and engaging in speaking, consulting and media activities.

Leveraging the opportunity – tourism and economic benefits

There is no doubt that huge economic benefits occur for communities within the path of totality.   For the 2012 total eclipse in Far North Queensland, the economic impact of the eclipse was calculated to be US$97 million. For 2015 in the Faroe Islands, 62 international media representatives catapulted the Faroe Islands into the spotlight, generating an estimated US$22 million in PR value alone.  It is easy to underestimate how big the total eclipse of 2017 will be – especially as there has not been one on the U.S. mainland in 39 years. The total eclipse of 2017 will be big, you will need resources to plan, and you will wish you had started it all much earlier than you did.   A little investment in planning will certainly go a long way.

Don’t be left in the dark. Be prepared for the darkness on eclipse day on August 21, 2017.

Download my White Paper on Community Eclipse Planning. If you are involved in preparing your community for the eclipse, then get in touch for your free consult.

21 Nov 2016

Total eclipse outreach: managing the hype

Super moon and super hype
Supermoon of 2014.  Image taken at moonrise with a telephoto lens.  Was the supermoon this big when viewed with the naked eye?  Nope.

Recently, there was much to-do about the supermoon.  In a way, it was great, as people started talking about the moon, and many made a point of going outside to view our closest celestial body.   Images like the one above – taken with a telephoto lens capturing the moon illusion – are gorgeous and captivating, and were making the rounds on social media in the fortnight leading up to the supermoon.  However, some people saw these posts, read the hype and then expected to see the moon this huge in the night sky.  They were then disappointed when it looked just the same as every other full moon they had seen, perhaps a little brighter.

moon-hype
This is true, but not as newsworthy on social media.

We seem to now be in a situation where the normal – a beautiful full Moon – is no longer enough.  It now has to be  some super, special, branded thing that people think they are missing out if they don’t see it.  Some rare factoid is then used to give it even more meaning, and photos are used out of context – or faked – to create an unnecessary dramatic effect.  This over hyping of astronomical events certainly grabs people’s attention, but there is a downside – expectations are raised, and then dashed, and people are left disappointed and disinterested in other astronomical activities.  The reality is, there is so much to explore out there in the night sky, every night.   We just have to stop and look up.

WHEN HYPE IS APPROPRIATE – BUT HOW MUCH?

But there is one astronomical event that astronomers and science outreach folk actually DO get very, very excited about, and is truly worthy of hype.  The total solar eclipse.   It is not the rarity that makes this event special – it really, truly is quite an unnatural and awe-inspiring event.  Most of the people on social media currently talking about the total eclipse are those who have actually seen one, or are preparing for one.  But it won’t be long before social media hype will take over, with unnecessary fake photos and incorrect facts, conspiracy theories and talk of the end of the world.  We should brace ourselves.  

If you are under 40, live in the US and have never traveled abroad to see a total eclipse, then you will never have experienced one.  Yet it is surprising how many people think they have seen a total eclipse, because of misunderstanding media reports and social media posts.

That is why eclipse outreach is so important for those who are living in or near to the path of totality for August 2017.  Most people get their astronomical news from social media, where fake stories and images abound.  Even in traditional media reports, there are often factual errors and incorrect images.  People need accurate information to understand what is to come, why it is a big deal, where they need to go to experience it, what to expect, and how to view it safely.

This image was reported to be a total solar eclipse taken from the ISS. However, it is 38 hours of digital artistry. Lovely, but in no way represents a total solar eclipse.
This image was reported to be a total solar eclipse taken from the ISS. However, it is 38 hours of digital artistry. Lovely and atmospheric – but not a true likeness. ©2009-2016 A4size-ska.

But if, like me, you share the full details about the total eclipse experience are you also feeding into the hype?  Are we raising people’s expectations about this once-in-a-lifetime event, only for them to be disappointed?

Telling people what to expect CAN influence their expectations.  But I also believe that you cannot ever spoil or over-hype a total solar eclipse.   Totality is very visceral, fully immersive, and goes beyond language.  There is no way, using words alone, that you can fully prepare someone for what they may feel and how it will impact upon them.

I have interviewed many scientists who say they thought they would not have any emotional reaction to their first total eclipse as it is a ‘science event’.  Yet, despite their ‘superior’ knowledge, they were still as affected as others who knew very little – screaming out ‘oh my God‘, repeatedly, being stunned into silence, and perhaps even crying, as they see the impossible happen.  Not everyone has emotional or transformative responses, but it is a rare person who is not moved and completely awestruck by the experience.  

 I have now spoken with hundreds of people before their first total eclipse, and then afterwards.  I get comments such as  “I was expecting it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be THAT good!”, or “If I hadn’t heard you talking about what it would be like, I would never have gone”.    I have never had one person say that previous conversations with me has spoiled the experience for them. 

When doing my eclipse research, the most common analogy most people relate the total eclipse experience to is the birth of their children.  It is a meaningful, significant and life-changing experience.  You may know what is to happen, have read about it, talked about it, seen videos, and even read personal accounts.  But nothing can prepare you for what goes on physically and emotionally, and how you make sense of it.  

THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF TOTALITY – WHEN ALL IS NOT AS IT SEEMS

There have been a few occasions that people have expressed their disappointment, or disinterest – always because they thought they had experienced totality when they hadn’t.

For example, when a total eclipse is clouded out, this can be disappointing as the main features are not seen and experienced.  During a post-eclipse lecture back in 2012, one man expressed his disappointment at the over hype of the total eclipse experience, which for him was blocked by thick cloud.  He could not accept that there was so much more to what he experienced, and he had no interest in seeing another.   It made me understand the importance of ‘expectation management’ – something that I encourage organisers to consider if they are in regions along the path that are likely to be cloudy.

Again in 2012, I was interviewing a local about her eclipse experience, and she didn’t seem to have much of the usual emotion when recounting her day.  When questioned further, it transpired that she kept her solar filters on for the whole of totality due to fear of harming her eyes.  As a result, she saw nothing, and missed it all.

By far the most common reports of disappointment are made by those who THINK they have seen the total solar eclipse, but were clearly not within the path.   One of my colleagues over a period of time kept questioning me on the authenticity of my experience, as he hadn’t felt any emotion at all during totality. After we consulted maps, it turns out that he was located about 400 miles away from the path of totality!  He had seen media reporting about the total eclipse, and had assumed that the partial in his area was the main show.  He had been adamant that he had seen a total eclipse.  I think to this day he STILL thinks they are no big deal – his loss.

MY APPROACH TO ECLIPSE OUTREACH

Everyone has different drives and motivations.  Some people are much more open to having new experiences – these are the people who will seek out information themselves about the eclipse.  But for most others within the path of totality, they will need information that helps them to understand the unique experience that is to come, so they can plan to see it.

Researching the eclipse experience.
Hearing others talk about the eclipse experience is the way to engage. (c) 2015, Kate Russo.

When I do my talks, I talk from my personal experience, but also from my research as well.  Sharing the experiences of many gives me the ability to highlight how unique and meaningful the total eclipse experience is.  There are similarities, of course, but the impact is deeply personal.  I can describe differences in how people make sense of that feeling of connection – it could be a connection to nature, the universe, mother earth, or some religious figure.  I never know what that will mean for each person – but I can give examples of how others have made sense of it.  This information may help people to put language to the profound experience they have, but it doesn’t necessarily change the lived experience.  Nor does it spoil it for them.

So, should you read and listen to other people’s accounts of totality before you see it for yourself?  I think yes.   Reading the accounts of others, listening to eclipse chasers – these things may influence how you think about it, and how you act.   That is, it might make you more likely to get into the path of totality, and to convince others to go along with you.  Without knowing that it really is quite a special event, you just may miss this chance, and regret it for a lifetime.

My next book features personal total eclipse experiences from a small number of ordinary people, and will be self published and available from my website in early 2017.   I also plan to engage in a speaking tour of the path of totality in 2017.  Formal announcements will occur soon.  Get in touch if you would like your community to be included in my tour.  

14 Nov 2016

4 years ago – totality in Far North Queensland

Four years ago today, on the morning of November 14 2012, the total solar eclipse was visible over Far North Queensland. As an eclipse chaser, for the first time in my life, all I had to do to get into the path of totality was to go home.

I spent the first 17 years of my life in this region – just outside of the path of totality. I may live far away, but North Queensland is my home, where my family still live, and it is in my blood. I return home as often as I can, often staying months at a time.

North Queensland is an amazing destination of world-heritage and very unique nature experiences – it truly is a tropical paradise. The perfect location to host the most incredible nature show there is – a total solar eclipse.

The locals were quite slow to warm up to the idea that the eclipse was going to be a big thing, and relevant to them. Us North Queenslanders’ are known for out laid-back outlook on life, and resilience and strong community connection in the face of adversity. We are shaped by our environment, and in this beautiful part of the world, nature can be harsh.

The year before the eclipse, the region was hit with a record-breaking category five cyclone – Yasi – that threatened Cairns but devastated smaller communities to the south. The impact of Cyclone Yasi was felt across the north, up and down the coast, as homes were devastated, people were displaced, farming and tourism infrastructure damaged, and livelihoods lost. The 2012 total eclipse could not have come at a better time. This was to be a positive nature event, one that could again unite the community in celebration, as well as draw in tens of thousands of tourists from around the world. It was time to showcase the region again. The eclipse was estimated to bring in 30,000 people, with an estimated $75 million for the local economy. Things were looking up.

Path of totality for 2012 total eclipse
Path of totality 2012. (c) Michael Zeiler

The path of totality for the total eclipse in 2012 was 179km wide, from Bloomfield in the north, to Innisfail to the south. Within the path were the coastal towns including Cairns, Port Douglas and Palm Cove; and the inland remote communities of Mareeba, Mt Carbine, Palmer River and Lakeland. Those viewing from inland locations were promised clear skies, and coastal locations were forecast to have patchy cloud.

As the crowds began to pour into the region, the reality and scale of the event was obvious. In the final week, eclipse mania prevailed, and it was all anyone could talk about.

And then the day arrived. It was a double dawn like no other – tens of thousands of people woke up early to experience the total eclipse with their family, friends and loved ones.

Waiting for totality in Palm Cove. 2012.
Waiting for totality in Palm Cove. © 2012 TTNQ

Sunrise occurred at around 5.38am on this special day, with the Moon starting its show across the Sun less than ten minutes later. Nature arose, to only be confused again moments later. The main event – totality – occurred at round 6.40am. At that time, the ever-present noise of nature in this tropical paradise was suddenly silenced, replaced by the delighted screams of the locals and visitors seeing this natural wonder for the first time in this location in over one thousand years.

Totality 2012 near Palm Cove
Experiencing totality in 2012 near Palm Cove, North Queensland. (c) 2012, Tourism Tropical North Queensland

Some were luckier than others. Those of us viewing from inland were indeed greeted with clear skies. Those viewing from the coast, however, had a mixed experience; with cloud patches spoiling the view for people even just hundreds of meters apart. Clouds may have spoiled the view for some, but it certainly did not spoil the mood, the excitement and the buzz.

The buzz was fever-pitched for about a week afterwards. Everyone wanted to know – “where were you? What did you see?” People shared their stories, their photos, their memories, and their renewed ideas.

But soon, life started to slowly return to normal. Tourists began to leave, and the slow pace of life returned. Yet life seemed different.

The benefit to the region was significant. Visitor numbers were over double what was initially estimated. The economic boost to the region was estimated to be at least $130 million, with a longer-term benefit for the regional tourism sector. But for every person there on that day, standing in the shadow of the Moon – no value that can be placed on that experience. To witness a total solar eclipse in your own community is unique, intense, profound, and will be with you for a lifetime.

Smile if you have seen totality.
The totality experience stays with you for a lifetime. (c) 2013, Seawalker

My book Totality: The total solar eclipse of 2012 in Far North Queensland tells the story of this eclipse, from the perspectives of many locals and visitors observing all across the north. And the images are gorgeous!! Order the ebook for just US$12.

 

17 Mar 2016

Totality 9 March 2016 from Wayu Village, Palu, Central Sulawesi

The total solar eclipse – what can I say.  WOW!!

It was the clearest total eclipse I have seen since Mongolia in 2008.  That’s a long time to wait.

We saw totality from Wayu Village, high up in the mountains above Palu city, with sweeping views of the whole bay to the north, and down the valley to the centreline towards the south.  You could not have picked a better vantage point.

Filming from our vantage point up in Wayu Village, overlooking Palu. (c) 2016, Kate Russo
Filming from our vantage point up in Wayu Village, overlooking Palu. (c) 2016, Kate Russo

The skies were clear, the Sun was high up, and the atmosphere electric.  At first contact, a traditional music song was played, sounding like a single didgeridoo, which echoed down the valley.  It was tremendous.  There were further cultural performances – eclipse dances, chanting.  We were high above the festivities though, it was difficult to fully see what was happening.  but the music drifted upwards.

It was hot – why do I always forget to wear sunscreen?? The temperature at first contact was 31.5 Celsius, and over time it dropped slowly until after totality when it registered 24.5 degrees.  The light went weird, birds were confused, and it was thrilling.

The shadow was not as pronounced as other eclipses, but the moment of second contact was incredible.  The diamond ring hung there beautifully and seemed to last a lifetime.  And then – totality.  I screamed with delight as that familiar shadow fully covered all on that sacred mountain.  We whooped, cheered, hugged, and stood in silence at the wonder before us.  It felt like forever. Two planets were clearly visible, although the sky did not darken too much. I had a quick glance through binoculars and saw an incomplete but beautiful corona  and prominences at 9 o’clock, both of which were clearly visible without binoculars.   The shadow was much more pronounced from behind.  The light on the horizon was beautiful.  I was so grateful that the clouds stayed away.

And then third contact – always over too soon.

Totality from Eclipse Festival.  (c) 2016, unknown
Totality from Eclipse Festival. (c) 2016, unknown

I was incredibly lucky to have this eclipse experience documented by MetroTV.  I must say that spending days with the crew really added to the whole experience, and it was such a privilege to share that with them.

There is so much more to say.  This eclipse will always be very special because of how we shared it – amongst the local population, our experience to be shared with the local community.  What a wonderful, bonding and precious time that was.

eclipse day group 1

Afterwards, I did a post-eclipse research workshop at the Sulawesi Eclipse Festival, where we shared the eclipse experience.  It was a very special time.

Researching the eclipse experience at the Sulawesi Eclipse Festival the day after the total solar eclipse. (c) 2016, Kate Russo
Researching the eclipse experience at the Sulawesi Eclipse Festival the day after the total solar eclipse. (c) 2016, Kate Russo

The documentary featuring this eclipse experience, the research I have done, the pre- and post-eclipse workshops I did at the Eclipse Festival, and interviews – all will be aired across Indonesia to millions.  What a wonderful way of sharing this amazing natural phenomena.   The below clip is the promotional video for the full show.

21 Aug 2015

Eclipse chasers and Countdowns

Astronomical Clock, PragueAs an eclipse chaser, I plan ahead and know where I will be on specific dates a few years in advance. This means that I am always on ‘eclipse countdown’, using eclipse maps as a scaffold for my future. This may seem rather geeky, but I think it’s rather cool and it also is quite typical eclipse chaser behavior.

Today just happens to be a significant eclipse countdown day. In exactly two years time, on August 21 2017, the path of totality will start in the North Pacific Ocean, make landfall on the Oregon coast, cross the whole of the US to South Carolina and then continue on into the North Atlantic. This is a significant eclipse as it will be easily accessible for tens of millions of people, and is the first to cross the mainland US since 1979.

At this very moment I am in Portland, Oregon not far from where this path of totality makes landfall. I am taking part in an eclipse outreach planning meeting, along with other astronomers, researchers, science educators and involved eclipse chasers. The meeting is held to coincide with this eclipse countdown day, and I will be doing a talk open to the general public along with some key eclipse gurus. Today, Americans across the path of totality will be encouraged to look towards the sky at eclipse time. Key things are to see the exact location of the Sun at first contact and totality time; to observe the weather, and to start considering plans for viewing in 2017. How lucky they are to have this occur in their home territory – something I know well from the eclipse of 2012 that went across North Queensland in Australia, where I am from.

Of course, in two years time on August 21 I know exactly where I will be – viewing this amazing event from within the stunning Grand Teton National Park with my fellow Independent Travellers. Rosemary and Natalie have cleverly secured arrangements in one of the most in-demand locations in the US for the eclipse. Our base is in Jackson Hole near to the centerline. This location really is amazing – both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks can be easily explored, and both have been on my travel wish list for many years. I’m excited about this trip and I cannot wait, although I know from my countdown that there are two full years to go.

But that’s not all. There is another eclipse countdown also occurring this weekend. There are now only 200 days to go for the next total solar eclipse on March 9 2016. The path of totality for this next eclipse crosses Indonesia. I will be in Palu and will be quite involved with the Sulawesi Eclipse Festival. Happily, I will be able to use the opportunity to do more of my psychological research, delving further into the eclipse experience from the perspective of younger travellers.

As well as keeping an eye on future eclipse countdowns, us eclipse chasers often reminisce about past eclipses. Every total eclipse remains special, and marks these awe-inspiring and life-enhancing moments we have in memorable locations across the world. This month marks an especially significant eclipse moment for me – my very first total solar eclipse on August 11 1999, which I saw in Fecamp, France. Those of you who have read my account of this in my first book Total Addiction will know how special it was, and how it marked my transition from an ‘eclipse virgin’ to ‘eclipse chaser’. It really did transform my life, and I had no idea that it would do so. August also marks the 2008 total eclipse that I saw from outer Mongolia – what an incredible and unique experience that was.

Being an eclipse chaser is so rewarding – we look forward to and remember these moments, savoring the awe and beauty of each and every eclipse. I know from my research and personal experience that this makes us appreciate life and the experiences we have, for which we are humbly grateful. How wonderful it is to be an eclipse chaser.

11 Jan 2015

Top 10 madness that is the new year

 

Eclipse chasing isn't just about the eclipse.  Mongolia 2008 © Kate Russo
Eclipse chasing isn’t just about the eclipse. Mongolia 2008 © Kate Russo

You cannot open a newspaper, read a magazine or go online lately without seeing a list of ‘top 10’ things to do or places to go this year.

What was especially noticeable this year was the presence of ‘seeing a total solar eclipse’ on most of these lists.   I can’t recall any other time when eclipse chasing appeared to be so high on the agenda. I suspect the main driver for this is the fact that in 2017 the path of totality makes its way across North America from west to east coast, and as a result public interest is at an all time high.

I absolutely agree that seeing a total solar eclipse is worthy of being on everyone’s aspiration list. The experience is other-worldly and beyond expectation. If you have not seen one, then you will not truly understand the buzz and experience until you are standing in the shadow of the Moon, mouth agog and the hair on the back of your neck standing up at sublime beauty of totality.   It is at this moment that you will ask yourself why you took so long to see one.

If seeing these ‘top 10’ lists have whetted your appetite for eclipse chasing, then you would have noticed that your 2015 options for land based eclipse viewing is limited – either the remote Faroe Islands, or rugged Svalbard. The eclipse in March is a little off-season for visiting both of these arctic locations. Despite this, many intrepid and die-hard chasers, and those seeking out-of-the-way adventures, have already planned their trips and soon will be packing their warm clothing. I’ve been banging on about the Faroe Islands now for two years!

But what if you feel the locations on offer are too challenging to get to, too expensive, or if you are not interested in cold weather viewing? Then you may like to know that 2016 might be a better year for you to have your eclipse experience. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, the path of totality for the total solar eclipse of March 2016 goes right across Indonesia. There are some fabulous travel opportunities with tours being arranged on land and sea. Whatever your preference – exotic, luxury, adventure, or completely off-the-beaten track, you will find interesting options. I will be heading to Sulawesi to see this (my 10th) total eclipse, and attending an Eclipse Festival where I will be able to do further research about the eclipse experience, while experiencing this amazingly diverse country.

Secondly, there is a second eclipse option – an annular solar eclipse takes place in September 2016. An annular eclipse is not as dramatic as a total eclipse (see my article here for the difference), but it is still an amazing sight to see the ‘ring of fire’ as the Moon almost covers the Sun. As in a total eclipse, you have to be within the path of annularity to see the ring of fire, which passes across central Africa, Madagascar and beyond. Top of the pick is Tanzania, where the eclipse coincides with the wildebeest migration, so it will be all about nature and wildlife.

So, if you have already ruled out an arctic total solar eclipse for this year, then make sure to explore options for chasing eclipses for 2016. But get in before those ‘top 10’ lists are published next year – I suspect if you wait for these lists to appear you may well miss the boat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

24 Dec 2014

Researching eclipse weather using Citizen Science

One of the concerns about the up-and-coming total solar eclipse is the weather experienced along the path of totality during the month of March.  Existing weather statistics for the Faroe Islands taken from Vagar Airport collected over the past 20 years show that there is a high occurrence of cloud in March, and a high occurrence of precipitation.

However, there are two main 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 weather at ‘eclipse time’ – from 8.40-10.40am.

Dr Geoff Sims and Dr Kate Russo in the Faroe Islands, March 2013
Dr Geoff Sims and Dr Kate Russo in the Faroe Islands, March 2014

For these reasons, I participated in a Citizen Science weather project in March 2014, exactly one year before the eclipse. Dr Geoff Sims – Australian Astrophysicist, Eclipse Photographer and fellow chaser – led the project.

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 month of March, at various locations across the islands.  A number of locals took photographs of the Sun every morning at 9.40am (the time of totality) 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.

Sample of images captured in March 2013 for each coded category
Sample of images captured in March 2014 for each coded category

The following generalisations could be made:

  • As predicted, there 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, with cloud appearing when clear skies were forecast, and some visibility where full cloud was forecast.
Frequency of cloud at eclipse time (darker regions represent more cloud)
Spatial map capturing the frequency of days in March 2014 where the cloud covered the Sun at 9.40am – totality time.  Note that darker regions denote more cloud.

A full report of this citizen science project was published in the December 2014 edition of The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.  An overview was also published by Geoff for Astronomers Without Borders.

The results of this citizen science project confirmed my own direct observations of where to focus eclipse viewing in the Faroe Islands. It also confirmed the anecdotal views of local people.

Citizen science projects do have some limitations. However, 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 all this, we will still be 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.