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"We're all astronomers:" UO prof says look up for the Ring of Fire eclipse this Saturday, weather or not

Astronomy professor with telescope and computer.
Tiffany Eckert
University of Oregon astronomy lecturer Dr. Scott Fisher is director of the Pine Mountain Observatory where many celestial events are observed and studied. He's pictured here in his offices in Klamath Hall on the UO campus in Eugene.

Starting just after 8 a.m. this Saturday, an annular eclipse makes landfall on the notoriously misty Oregon coast. Then, the moon’s shadow will continue over Eugene, Roseburg, Crater Lake, and Klamath Falls. While weather may impede some views along the eclipse path, it could be worth the effort to watch this celestial event.

Few Oregonians who witnessed the total solar eclipse in 2017 can forget it. Human howls were heard from mountain top to mountain top.

Image of an annular eclipse.
An annular eclipse happens when the moon is farthest from Earth.

The word “eclipse” is from a Greek term “ekleipsis,” meaning abandonment. Ancient societies viewed the eclipse as a dragon, or demon, devouring the sun. The Incas and Chinese would make great commotion during an eclipse, banging drums and pots and pans to intimidate the creatures eating away at the disc of the life-giving sun.

A family wears solar eclipse glasses to watch an eclipse.
Sharon Ryder-Eckert
During the October 14, 2023 annular eclipse, the entire disc of the sun will not be covered. There's going to be about 5% of the sun left uncovered, known as the ring of fire. Astronomers urge folks to wear eclipse glasses during the entire celestial event.

Ring of Fire

A very large telescope looms in the window of Scott Fisher’s office on the University of Oregon campus. He’s an astronomy lecturer and proclaimed science communicator.

“I'm very passionate about the idea of being able to communicate science, particularly to non-scientists like the public,” said Fisher. That’s apropos because an eclipse is something that is going to be affecting everyone.

Sitting in eye shot of his telescope, Fisher described what causes an annular eclipse:

“The moon is going to go in front of the sun, just like it did back in 2017. But this time the moon is a little farther away from the earth, a little smaller in the sky,” he said. “So, it will not cover the entire disc of the sun. There’s going to be a little ring of the sun still visible up in the sky that's called an annulus.”

The word annular is derived directly from the Latin term annularis, which means “pertaining to a ring.” Don't mistake words here: Annular is a shape, whereas annual is a time period.

“If you take a ring off and look at the circular size of a ring, that is exactly the definition of annular or annulus,” Fisher said.

And that’s what many hope to see across the path of annularity this Saturday morning: the “Ring of Fire.”

“The earth, the sun and the moon all align. And that, by the way, (is) why we see the moon in silhouette against the disc of the sun,” Fisher said. “But in this particular case, the entire disc of the sun will not be covered. There's going to be about five percent of the sun left uncovered and that's going to be that bright annulus that we can see.”

So, what should folks anticipate?

Fisher said it's going to get darker and potentially a few degrees cooler.

“And one thing I'm looking forward to seeing as the eclipse is happening-- be sure to look at the shadows through a tree or a bunch of modeled shadows,” he said. “What you'll see is (that) they all have the shape of the sun. Even as the moon is moving across the disc, you'll see a bunch of beautiful little arcs in the shadows."

In terms of eye safety, Fisher said this is a different eclipse from 2017. “You're going to want to keep your eclipse glasses on for the whole event," he said.

A pile of solar eclipse glasses.
Tiffany Eckert
During an annular eclipse, there's always going to be that bright ring of the sun visible. Eclipse glasses should be worn during the entire event. The American Astronomical Society says modern eclipse glasses do not expire. If the glasses were compliant with the ISO 12312-2, and have no punctures, scratches or tears, and the filters/lenses remain attached to the frames, they will last.

"Remember back then when it was totality, we could take our glasses off for those two minutes or so, but here there's always going to be that bright ring of the sun is going to be visible. So, I strongly urge everybody please keep your eclipse glasses on the whole time,” said Fisher.

The university professor said he likes to bring this up when talking about eclipses with his hundreds of college freshman. “You know, we know this is happening, right? We understand the orbit of the moon and the sun and the earth so well, we can predict these eclipses a 1000-years into the future.”

“But can you imagine living hundreds of years ago,” Fisher asked, “where you just woke up one morning and said, ‘just what the heck is happening to the sun?’”

“Think about that morning…”

According to NASA Science, anywhere from four to seven times a year, our earth, moon and sun line up just right to create the shadow show known as an eclipse. Because the moon's orbit around earth is tilted relative to earth's orbit around the sun there are only occasional eclipses instead of eclipses every month.

Here's a link to NASA’s Eclipse Explorer map with details of when and where the eclipse will be visible, including the path and duration of annularity (the areas from which the 'ring of fire' can be seen.)

Stirring Up Astronomy

There’s little doubt celestial events excite astronomers.

“This is a little, extra exciting!” said Fisher. “Look, these are fairly uncommon events. You don’t get to see them very often. And for me, I’m also excited about promoting it. And so, you know—I can’t believe I’m gonna say it! I’m over the moon sitting here talking to you today!"

He said anyone can consider themselves an astronomer, in a way.

"We appreciate a beautiful sunset," he said. "We all appreciate going out and looking up with a nice dark sky and seeing those stars and maybe even the Milky Way. So, I think we're all astronomers and I get extra excited about being able to share this type of stuff with folks.”

For 2023 annular eclipse viewers: think ahead and seek the clearest early morning views of the eastern horizon. Astronomer Scott Fisher said no matter where you are this Saturday in Oregon: wake up early, have a cup, go outside and just look up.

With eclipse glasses, of course.

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and worked in a variety of media including television, technical writing, photography and daily print news before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
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