I’ve been chasing total eclipses for over 20 years. While waiting for each chase, I usually channel my energies into community eclipse planning and working behind-the-scenes on projects for future eclipses.
Despite living in Australia, I am a member of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Solar Eclipse Task Force, which is the key supporting organization for solar eclipse planning across the US. We have been meeting via Zoom regularly and are working towards future eclipse coordination in the US.
Plans are now ramping up in preparation for the next total solar eclipse visible across the US, including Mexico and Canada, on 8 April 2024. If you thought the ‘Great American Eclipse of 2017’ was huge, then be aware that was just the warm-up. With so much more awareness, the ‘Greater North American Total Solar Eclipse of 2024’ is going to be huge! And an added bonus – an annular (‘ring’) solar eclipse will be visible across the US and parts of Mexico the year before, on 14 October 2023. Make sure to mark these dates in your diary.
This means community eclipse planning needs to start NOW for all communities who find themselves in the Moon’s shadow in 2023 and/or 2024.
To help you with this, the AAS Solar Eclipse Task Force is hosting the next planning weekend workshop via Zoom on Friday and Saturday, 9 and 10 April 2021, to coincide with the three-year countdown to the total eclipse in 2024. This online workshop will be of interest to anyone who needs to be involved in preparations for these two solar eclipses, and there is a great line-up of experienced presenters who are keen to support you. Day 1 of the workshop will provide a detailed overview of these solar eclipse opportunities across the US, and guidance about eye safety. Day 2 of the workshop is dedicated to eclipse planning. I will be delivering a presentation on community eclipse planning on Day 2, and then taking part in a panel discussion on the topic that will also feature others who will be sharing their planning experience from 2017.
There is a low fee of $20 to take part in the weekend workshop. Please CLICK HERE for more detailed information, any questions, and to register your attendance. If you cannot attend this workshop, then make sure to still link in with the Eclipse Task Force to be kept informed of future planning workshops.
I’ve been guiding and researching community eclipse planning for many years now, and my top three nuggets of advice based upon my own direct experience and the many, many hindsight interviews I have done after each eclipse: start planning early; focus on the community; and consult with eclipse experts. This workshop will help you get started – you will be warmly welcomed by the Solar Eclipse Task Force, and you will have an opportunity to connect with others who are also starting out with their planning too. I look forward to seeing you there.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.