Two hours in the moon's shadow: Stories of an eclipse chaser

Two hours in the moon's shadow: Stories of an eclipse chaser

By Kyle MittanUniversity Communications
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University of Arizona astronomer Glenn Schneider traveled to northern Kenya to see this total solar eclipse in 2013. Schneider and fellow eclipse chasers nearly missed it due to a dust storm, but they saw it from a plane 300 feet above the clouds. (Photo by Catalin Beldea, courtesy of Glenn Schneider)
University of Arizona astronomer Glenn Schneider traveled to northern Kenya to see this total solar eclipse in 2013. Schneider and fellow eclipse chasers nearly missed it due to a dust storm, but they saw it from a plane 300 feet above the clouds. (Photo by Catalin Beldea, courtesy of Glenn Schneider)
Glenn Schneider
Glenn Schneider
Schneider with imaging equipment in Madras, Oregon, in 2017. It was the first eclipse in nearly four decades with a path of totality in the U.S. (Courtesy of Glenn Schneider)
Schneider with imaging equipment in Madras, Oregon, in 2017. It was the first eclipse in nearly four decades with a path of totality in the U.S. (Courtesy of Glenn Schneider)
Schneider and fellow umbraphiles traveled to Rapa Nui, the island in the South Pacific commonly known as Easter Island, before boarding a jet to see an eclipse in July 2019. (Courtesy of Glenn Schneider)
Schneider and fellow umbraphiles traveled to Rapa Nui, the island in the South Pacific commonly known as Easter Island, before boarding a jet to see an eclipse in July 2019. (Courtesy of Glenn Schneider)

Glenn Schneider has witnessed 35 total solar eclipses in the last 50 years, but he doesn't have a favorite. Each one is unique, he says.

But the one he saw Oct. 3, 1986, from a small jet 40,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean between Greenland and Iceland, stands alone. That eclipse's totality, the period of time when the moon passed in front of the sun, blocking out the sunlight, lasted mere fractions of a second.

"The extremely narrow tip of the moon's shadow just barely brushed the surface of the Earth and it came and went so quickly that if you had sneezed during totality, you would've missed it," Schneider recalled.

Schneider, 65, a research professor at Steward Observatory, is an "umbraphile," which means "shadow lover." More practically, it means someone willing to do just about anything to see a total solar eclipse – including travel to Iceland and board a small plane to watch a celestial event that lasts a fraction of the time it takes to, say, get up from your sofa and draw the shades.

Schneider says he isn't being hyperbolic when he likens his passion to an addiction. And his track record of globe-trotting just might support that.

A phenomenon seen, felt and heard

A total solar eclipse occurs when the Earth, moon and sun align in such a way that the shadow of the moon is cast on the Earth. Seeing the moon totally block out the sun requires the viewer to be somewhere along the eclipse's path of totality, which, depending upon the eclipse and location, can be up to 166 miles wide.

"It's just an absolutely awe-inspiring phenomenon that's more than just seen," Schneider says. "It's felt, it's heard by the reactions of people and animals, the dropping of temperature, the picking up or stillness of wind, the stars coming out during the daytime."

Anything seen from outside the path of totality is a partial solar eclipse, and the experience just doesn't compare to seeing a total solar eclipse, Schneider says. Umbraphiles liken the experience of a partial solar eclipse to traveling to the Louvre in Paris and, instead of walking inside to see the "Mona Lisa," turning around at the museum's doors and coming back home.

Schneider saw his first total solar eclipse from Greenville, North Carolina, on March 7, 1970. He was 14 and had spent years planning the trip and practicing with his cameras and telescopes so he could get a clear photo when the time came.

Following a 12-hour bus ride from his hometown of New York City, he set up all his camera gear on the football field of East Carolina University. All of his equipment was in place when the moon covered the sun. But Schneider doesn't have any photos of that eclipse.

"I quite literally could not move. I was just enveloped by the whole phenomenon. It wasn't that I didn't operate my equipment – I couldn't operate it because nothing else mattered except the hole in the sky where the sun had been," Schneider says.

"Something happened to my brain at that instant."

Fifty years of adventure, two hours in the moon's shadow

Whatever did happen to Schneider's brain that day in 1970 has taken him to the farthest reaches of the globe on all seven continents. In the last 50 years, all those fractions of seconds have added up to a grand total just shy of two hours spent sitting, standing, floating or flying in the moon's umbral shadow.

He watched a total solar eclipse in Roy, Montana, in 1979. Two years later, another eclipse drew him to Siberia. He saw one from a ship on the Caribbean in 1998. He traveled to the bottom of the world in 2003 to see an eclipse from a Boeing 747-400 jetliner 35,000 feet above Antarctica. Five years later, he traveled to the top of the world to watch another while flying over the Arctic Ocean 500 miles from the North Pole.

In 2017, cities large and small across the U.S. became hot spots for viewing that year's eclipse, the first in nearly four decades whose path of totality bisected the country. Schneider was in Madras, Oregon, for that one with his daughter, Maia Schneider, an academic adviser in the College of Pharmacy who has seen five total solar eclipses.

"A road trip for an eclipse is an amazingly rare opportunity," he says.

Planning for the when and the where of total solar eclipses is relatively easy. They occur, on average, roughly every 16 months and are predictable to a small fraction of a second, Schneider says. Uncertainties in logistical details – such as weather or unexpected geopolitical events on eclipse day – are harder to predict. Schneider has been lucky more than once.

A dust storm on a remote airstrip in northern Kenya socked in Schneider and his fellow eclipse chasers as they prepared for an eclipse in 2013. They were convinced they had missed it until a break in the storm gave the group just a few minutes to pile into two small planes and take off. They saw the eclipse from 300 feet above the clouds.

The fleeting eclipse in 1986 was seen from a plane chartered out of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. That trip came just a week before the city hosted the famous summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev. International news media were clamoring to get there and offering charter companies big bucks to cancel others' reservations and take their crews instead.

But the pilot for Schneider's flight just happened to be the brother of an astronomy professor at the University of Iceland, who was also interested in going. The charter company happily honored Schneider's reservation, and everyone on the flight witnessed what is likely the shortest total solar eclipse ever seen from Earth.

Eclipses 'set the pathway' for astronomy career

While humans have studied total solar eclipses for centuries, Schneider says researchers are still getting scientific value from observing them. Astronomers and solar physicists understand the basic processes that produce energy inside the sun, but the details of how that energy flows outward through its gaseous "surface" and affects the environment around the planets in our solar system remain unclear.

Answers to some questions can be found through missions to the sun, such as the Parker Solar Probe, which involves several researchers from the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. But other observations can only be made during total solar eclipses, Schneider says.

"Every time we have a total solar eclipse, we gather more information and get closer to answers, but we're not there yet," he says.

Schneider's professional research doesn't actually involve total solar eclipses. He came to the University in 1994 as part of a team that built an imaging instrument added to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.

Today, Schneider uses such instruments to study the environment around the stars that formed, or are forming, planets beyond our solar system. That work begins with getting clear images of the dust and debris around those stars, and to do that, the instruments block much of the stars' intense light – not unlike an eclipse, Schneider says.

His passion and his work are "incredibly symbiotic," he says, even beyond just the technical similarities. The transformation in 1970 that still leads him on a life of adventure around the world also laid the foundation for his career as an astronomer.

"It was total solar eclipses that really set the pathway for me."

The (very few) ones that got away

Schneider has been clouded out three times, meaning he stood in the eclipse's shadow but could not see totality because of cloud cover.

For decades, he had completely missed only two total solar eclipses. Both were in the 1980s, and they proved so difficult to get to that no other humans saw them, either. On Dec. 14, he missed his third one since 1970 when health concerns and travel restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic kept him from getting to Argentina.

"It was a hard pill to swallow," Schneider says. "But knowing hundreds of thousands or more Argentinians and Chileans in the path of totality got to see the eclipse was a little bit of recompense."

Anyone taking a full account of Schneider's eclipse-chasing exploits might be mistaken to leave out that, before Dec. 14, he shared a world record, with two of his umbraphile friends, for the greatest number of total solar eclipses ever experienced. Much has been made of the record in the pages of The New Yorker, and, more recently, on the United Kingdom's National Geographic website. But Schneider dismisses the achievement as "totally irrelevant."

"This is not a competitive sport, we don't do this for record keeping, it's just one of the incidentals that happens to come along with it," he says. "The real relevancy is what amazing phenomena total solar eclipses are."

Eclipses on the horizon

Schneider's next eclipse trip is less than a year away. On Dec. 4, he and a group of fellow umbraphiles plan to fly from the southern tip of Chile to intercept the path of totality over the Scotia Sea, just northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula. It will be the first eclipse Schneider will see during sunrise.

He has dreamed of being in New York City, his hometown, when it's the Big Apple's turn to be in the path of totality. But that won't come until May 1, 2079. Since Schneider would need to live to 123 to see it, it's unlikely he will fulfill that dream – but his daughter might. Maia will be in her mid-80s, and her father has provided detailed instructions on precisely where to be and when so she can see it herself.

Schneider never misses a chance to proselytize about the wonder of total solar eclipses. Everyone ought to experience at least one, he says.

Charter flights to the Arctic and endless luck aren't always required. The next total solar eclipse to pass over the U.S. will come on April 8, 2024. Major cities within the path of totality include: Indianapolis; Buffalo, New York; Burlington, Vermont; and several places in Texas.

"You've got to put it on your bucket list, but make it sooner rather than later," Schneider says, "because you're going to want to do it more than once."

 

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