Check out today's 'ring of fire' — but don't get blinded by the light

At5:08 this afternoon, the moon will start taking a chomp out of the sun. But do not fear, tadpoles. If we perform the rituals, we will vanquish the serpent.

Today is the first annular solar eclipse visible in the United States in 18 years, and Southern Oregon is in the sweet spot. How lucky is that? If you track the path of near-totality across the globe, it looks like a dark, tiny worm inching sideways across a huge beach ball, most of which is ocean.

An eclipse isn't just for science geeks. You might not notice planetary conjunctions or massive solar flares, but if you see a solar eclipse, you'll never forget it.

This one will start in southeast Asia, sweep across the Pacific Ocean, cross Oregon and Northern California this late afternoon and early evening and trace a 186-mile-wide arc to West Texas. The local show will last about two hours.

Do NOT look directly at the sun unless you want little holes in your retinas that will impair your vision forever. Even the infrared light you can't see can cook the inside of your eyeballs.

Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland got a special shipment of 500 pairs of eclipse glasses Friday, and they were going fast. Unless you can score some, or some No. 14 welder's glass — and all the welding shops in the valley are sold out — it's best to make a pinhole projector. More on this shortly.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon hits a point in its orbit around Earth that aligns just so with Earth and the sun (a lunar eclipse is different, occurring when the moon is on the other side of Earth from the sun and is blacked out by Earth's shadow).

A solar eclipse is total only when the moon is close enough to Earth that its apparent diameter is as large as the sun, visually obliterating it. In an annular eclipse, the moon is far enough from Earth that as it passes across the face of the sun it will leave around the black disc of the moon, with apologies to Johnny Cash, a ring of fire. "Annulus" is Latin for ring.

ScienceWorks in Ashland plans an eclipse party with free eclipse glasses for the first 150 people. Jessica Vineyard of Southern Oregon Skywatchers plans a presentation on the eclipse, after which there's a star-watching party. Call 541-482-6767 or see

There's a whole subculture of eclipse chasers (check out who follow them around the globe, making plans years in advance. I felt like one, although I'm not, watching the lunar eclipse of 2010 at winter solstice at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala from the roof of our hotel with a small but congenial group.

The last total solar eclipse visible from the United States took place the morning of Feb. 26, 1979, running through Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana before veering across Canada to Greenland. Eclipse chasers and wannabes came from all over to see it.

I was in Bend that Monday. The day dawned clear enough, a spot of luck in an Oregon February, and the sun soon looked as if some cosmic monster were taking a bite out of it. At totality, the day got dark, street lights came on, and dogs howled. The temperature dropped. The sun's light broke through the uneven surface of the moon, creating the dazzling spectacle known as Baily's Beads, a few seconds of a ring of jewel-like luminosity. But totality passed and humdrum normalcy returned.

A bonus feature of that one — no extra charge — was shadow bands, wavy lines of alternating light and dark that raced over the ground. This happens in some eclipses and not others. You hear it can cause dizziness, but you don't get too many chances to see it in a lifetime.

Now, about those rituals. If you were in ancient China, you banged on drums to scare the serpent that was devouring the sun, as any fool could see. Because the sun was a giver of life, a solar eclipse was seen as bad news pretty much everywhere.

In Shakespeare's "King Lear," when Gloucester says, "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us," contemporary audiences would have nodded in knowing agreement. Gloucester lists the effects as the cooling of love, the ending of friendships, the splitting of brothers, mutinies in cities, discord in nations, treason in palaces and the breaking of father-son bonds.

So invent your own rituals. And if you miss the show, don't worry. There's another on Aug. 21, 2017. But don't wait too long. In, say, a billion years, there will be no more total eclipses because the moon, whose orbit is inching away from Earth, will be too far away.

If you lived millions of years you'd notice annular eclipses becoming "more annular" with the ring of fire growing larger. The diminishing prominence of the moon also is expected to present a challenge to Tin Pan Alley composers, who could be forced to find a new rhyme for "June" and "croon."

Here's how to make a pinhole projector: Take two pieces of cardboard or thick paper (note cards will do). Put a pinhole in one. Make it as clean as you can. Then stand with your back to the sun so that the sun's light falls through the hole and onto the other sheet.

You'll see a small but distinct image of the eclipse. The farther apart the two surfaces, the larger the image. But the larger it is the fuzzier it gets. Or cut a square out of the middle of one piece of cardboard, tape a sheet of aluminum foil over that and put the pinhole in the foil, ensuring a cleaner hole.

You can also do this with binoculars. Point the big end at the sun (remembering not to look through it) and project the image onto a card several inches away. Be careful not to overheat the optics. Happy viewing!

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to

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