Richmond will be left out of the most dramatic darkness when a solar eclipse transits the country on Aug. 21, but it could still be the best local solar eclipse experience since 1970.
When 86 percent of the sun is obscured, it promises to be striking, but not truly surreal; rare, but not necessarily a once-in-a-lifetime sight.
Just as long as it isn’t cloudy again.
The path of 100 percent totality will sweep from Oregon to South Carolina, where scientists, adventurers and the curious will gather and gaze as day is replaced with a few minutes of eerie darkness.
Here, the sun won’t completely disappear.
The experience may be like a partial eclipse that obscured 73 percent of the sun over Richmond on July 20, 1963. The Times-Dispatch described it this way the following day:
“During the maximum period, an almost eerie lighting effect prevailed — an effect akin to that produced by a setting winter sun.”
Here’s Richmond’s eclipse timeline for Monday, Aug. 21, according to NASA:
1:18 p.m.: The moon will first appear to touch the sun’s disc.
2:44 p.m.: The maximum coverage — with the moon obscuring roughly 86 percent of the sun — will occur. With specialty eclipse glasses, you can expect to see the sun reduced to a crescent shape.
4:03 p.m.: Things will get brighter until the sun is full again.
It bears repeating: never look directly at the sun, even when its partially blocked. Sunglasses aren’t good enough.
The last two good opportunities for solar eclipse viewing in Richmond were stifled by cloud cover.
A partial eclipse on May 10, 1994, was mostly blocked from view by clouds and a brief rain shower.
Then there was the much-anticipated annular eclipse of May 30, 1984 — so named for the ring-like effect of the moon being too distant to entirely block out the sun.
Were it not for a thick, rainy overcast, people along an extremely narrow path from Chase City to Petersburg to Assateague Island would have been wowed by a ring of sunlight. Instead, the cloudy, drizzly midday sky darkened as if it were dusk.
The possibility of another cloudy disappointment can’t be ruled out yet. A reliable cloud cover forecast may not be pinned down until a few days out, but August afternoons in Virginia often come with some scattered puffy cumulus clouds.
It’s inevitable that some parts of the country are in for a complete bust, depending on where the highs, lows and fronts wind up.
Eclipses are like any kind of statistic: a rare event can seem like more or less of a superlative depending on how you frame it. One particular town may be a few hundred years away from their next totality, or get two within the span of a decade, like Carbondale, Ill., will in 2017 and 2024.
In any given spot, partial eclipses happen more often than total eclipses or annular eclipses, but not at even intervals. That’s because the moon orbits the Earth in a plane that’s slightly skewed from Earth’s orbit around the sun. The occasional alignment makes a shadow that sweeps over the Earth in arcs of variable width.
Many partial eclipses are too little of a blockage to create any notable effect or excitement.
When you consider an area as large as the U.S., the wait for a total eclipse may be on the scale of decades instead of centuries.
The last total eclipse in the United States was on July 11, 1991, but only for Hawaii.
Feb. 26, 1979, brought the most recent total eclipse visible from the Lower 48, yet the last to go across America from ocean-to-ocean was on June 8, 1918.
The last time Virginia was touched by a total eclipse was on March 7, 1970. It cast Hampton Roads into total darkness but was a partial eclipse for Richmond.
You’ll have to wait until May 11, 2078, for the next totality experience somewhere in Virginia, but again, only if you’re in Franklin, Suffolk, Chesapeake or Virginia Beach.
Today’s newborn babies will be 82 years old the next time the moon totally blocks the sun over Richmond on Sept. 14, 2099.
Don’t throw away your eclipse glasses just yet. On April 8, 2024, Virginia will be exposed to another partial solar eclipse that will be similar to the magnitude of this year’s.