On August 21, Americans will witness a once-in-a-lifetime event, last seen nearly a century ago. A total eclipse of the sun, visible from coast to coast, will cast a path of “totality” across the United States, resulting in complete darkness for more than 2 minutes. From Salem, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina, this 70 mile-wide, 2,000 mile-long journey will cross towns and cities, deserts, forests and national parks. Municipalities and organizations near and far are preparing to host large crowds gathered to experience the epic eclipse.
Carbondale, Illinois, a city roughly 330 miles from Chicago, has the distinction of being the location NASA anticipates the total solar eclipse will last longest. There, the sun will be completely covered for 2 minutes and 38 seconds – a full 1 minute and 3 seconds longer than Leavenworth, Kansas. Carbondale officials are expecting nearly 90,000 visitors on eclipse day.
On the main Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale campus, full totality will happen at 1:21 p.m., at which point it will feel like nighttime; the temperature will drop and stars will be visible in the sky. The partial phases of the eclipse start at 11:52 a.m., and end at 2:47 p.m.
“Carbondale will experience the longest period of totality in the United States, but you can get a similar experience anywhere within a 60-mile radius of that location,” said Michelle Nichols, Adler Planetarium’s director of public observing.
On the North Shore, if the skies are clear, a partial eclipse will be visible between those same hours, as the moon slowly slides over the sun and moves toward maximum coverage at approximately 1:20 p.m., when about 87% of the sun will disappear. Even during a partial eclipse, noted Nichols, protective solar glasses must be worn to look directly at the sun.
“At that moment it will appear a little darker here in the Chicago area, but not dramatically different,” said Nichols, who added that the precise timing of the eclipse is still fluid. “Shadows will look sharper and the lighting will look a little strange but our eyes will get adjusted.”
According to Nichols, the last time the Chicago area was this close to an eclipse’s path of totality was 1925.
Many area residents will head to the Chicago Botanic Garden on eclipse day, where, in partnership with the Adler Planetarium, organizers are hosting a special viewing event between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., featuring free solar glasses and family activities.
Some local enthusiasts are traveling a considerable distance to be in the eclipse’s path of totality, booking overnight accommodations in Carbondale and surrounding towns more than a year in advance.
Kristin Merrill of Wilmette said her husband, Christopher, started planning their family’s upcoming trip to Carbondale 13 months ago.
“Even a year ago, when hotels began accepting reservations, everything in Carbondale was booked,” said Merrill.
The Merrills and their two children, Alex, a rising junior at New Trier, and Kate, a 7th grader at Wilmette Junior High School, will be staying in nearby Marion, Illinois, but they plan to attend eclipse festivities taking place on SIU’s campus.
In preparation for the family’s road trip, Kristin, a teacher, has logged onto both NASA and the Adler Planetarium’s websites in search of educational activities.
“We plan on making special ‘Solar Oven S’mores’ for fun,” said Merrill. “You make them in a solar powered oven crafted out of a cereal box and aluminum foil.”
Evanston resident Elissa Cornyn, who teaches 2nd grade with Merrill at Greeley Elementary School in Winnetka, will travel to Carbondale with her daughter, Leila, an 8th grader. The pair will stay in Mount Vernon, Illinois, roughly 1 hour from SIU’s Salukis Stadium, where they plan to join the Merrills for an afternoon of eclipse festivities.
Cornyn reports that in addition to selling stadium seats, SIU has rented out dorm rooms and space in the gyms on campus as indoor “campgrounds” to accommodate out of towners.
“I looked at tons of hotels around Carbondale as well as area rentals on Airbnb,” said Cornyn, who made her travel arrangements three months ago. “There was nothing available.”
On August 21 in Northbrook, District 30’s Westcott Elementary School PTO will hold its annual welcome back luncheon for teachers and staff from noon to 1 p.m. PTO co-chairs Michelle King and Christie Hartbarger, along with luncheon organizers Jana McWilliams, Andrea Grouper and Jennifer Klein, have turned this year’s event into an eclipse-themed luncheon, complete with centerpieces made of solar glasses – one for each attendee – and moon shaped chocolates printed with the message, “Without a shadow of a doubt, Westcott teachers are the best.”
“We were searching for a theme until our co-chairs put two and two together,” said McWilliams.
Regardless of location, whether it’s Carbondale or Northbrook, visibility of the Great American Eclipse will be entirely dependent on good American weather.
“It’s really got to be a clear day,” said Michelle Nichols, from her office at the Adler. “If clouds are in the way, no one is going to see it.”