“We won’t see this again until 2074”: Meet the head of Ontario’s Eclipse Task Force

“We won’t see this again until 2074”: Meet the head of Ontario’s Eclipse Task Force

Astrophysicist Ilana MacDonald breaks down what to expect during the once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse on April 8 and why the TDSB was wrong to cancel classes

Toronto astrophysicist Ilana MacDonald is the head of Ontario’s Eclipse Task Force

It’s still two months out, but the solar eclipse that will cut a path across southern Ontario on April 8 is already generating a lot of buzz—and a bit of controversy, as school boards, including the TDSB, have voted to cancel classes out of “an abundance of caution” and “concern for student safety.” It’s disappointing, says Toronto astrophysicist Ilana MacDonald. The head of Ontario’s Eclipse Task Force believes schools are missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity. Here, she talks about why the coming eclipse is especially exciting and what most people get wrong about staring at the sun.

You lead the Ontario Eclipse Task Force. Do most eclipses require task forces, or is this one a particularly high threat level?
It’s not about threat level, but this is a big deal, even compared with other eclipses. What’s special is that there is going to be 100 per cent coverage, meaning the moon will entirely cover the sun, compared with a partial eclipse or an annular eclipse, which is the “ring of fire” when the moon is farther away and only partially eclipses the sun. A total solar eclipse happens twice every year, but since the earth is 75 per cent water and most of the land is uninhabited, it’s very rare that people are in a position to see it. It won’t happen again in Canada until January 27, 2074, so this really is a once-in-a-lifetime event—unless you’re planning an Arctic cruise. 

We put together a task force because there is a lot of excitement and we wanted to be able to coordinate efforts. The group consists of representatives from universities, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, science centres and parks across the province. We have subcommittees that are helping develop content for teachers and schools, and another one to help communities prepare for increased traffic and tourism in the path of totality.

The path of what?
The path of totality is the path the moon’s shadow will take. These are the places that will have 100 per cent coverage, starting in the Niagara Region, going through Hamilton, Burlington and the southern part of Oakville. It runs across Lake Ontario, just missing Toronto, and then reemerges in the Prince Edward County region. As the moon’s shadow cuts across, the temperature will drop a few degrees, flowers will start to close, birds will start to fall asleep. Along the path of totality, you will see things that you wouldn’t normally be able to see because the sun is so, so bright. That includes the sun’s corona, which is sort of like this extended amount of gas that surrounds the sun, so you’ll see this black circle where the moon is, and then this beautiful circle of gas around it that looks like a lion’s mane. Absolutely stunning.

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How is a solar eclipse different from a lunar eclipse?
A lunar eclipse is when the earth is between the sun and the moon, and the earth’s shadow is cast upon the moon. When that happens, the whole side of the earth that the eclipse is on will see it, so it’s a lot more common than a solar eclipse—but still really cool. 

And what is a total eclipse of the heart?
It’s a very good song by Bonnie Tyler. One of my favourites for karaoke, actually. 

If Toronto isn’t in the path of totality, what will we see from here?
If you take a boat out five or six kilometres on Lake Ontario, you’ll be able to see the total eclipse. On land, we are going to get over 99 per cent coverage, so it will get darker starting after 2 p.m. and the horizon will be bright, like at sunset. There will probably be a slight temperature drop and some of the other things I described, just not as drastic. 

Sounds cool, but is it dangerous? I ask in light of the TDSB’s decision to close school on that day, which has certainly sent parent Twitter into a tailspin.
As far as I know, the school boards are concerned about students looking directly at the sun and damaging their eyes as well as about the level of darkness during the eclipse, which will be the most dramatic around 3:20 p.m., when schools let out. In Toronto specifically, the level of darkness will be along the lines of what you would see on a stormy day with thick cloud cover, so it’s not like you’re going to be crashing into things. 

Could a kid actually go blind from looking at an eclipse? How much brighter is the sun?
This is a misconception I think a lot of people have. The sun during an eclipse is the same as the sun on any other day. What’s different is that there is this cool thing happening, so people are going to be more likely to want to look for longer periods of time. Ralph Chou—who is a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and an optometrist—has said that there is no safe amount of time that you can look at the sun unprotected, and staring at the sun for 90 seconds uninterrupted will cause permanent damage. It will burn your retina, and since there are no pain receptors on your retina, you won’t feel it. That’s why the right protective eyewear is so important. 

How are eclipse glasses different from regular sunglasses?
They’re much more opaque, so if you’re looking at anything other than the sun, even an electrical lamp, you will just see blackness. And when you look at the sun, it will just be normal bright. 

So I can’t just use my Ray-Bans?
A pair of Ray-Bans will cut out maybe half of the sun’s light, so that’s not enough if you’re planning to look directly at the sun. You want to be sure to get the ISO-certified version and not the Amazon knockoffs. Or you can watch the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole camera, where the light is projected through a small hole onto a piece of paper. A colander or a cheese grater, even making the hashtag symbol with your fingers, can also work.

In your astrophysical opinion, is cancelling school a bit over the top?
When I was a kid at school in Montreal in the ’90s, there was a partial eclipse, and they decided to keep us all in the gym while it happened just to be safe. My dad and I had made a pinhole camera out of an old shoebox and I was so disappointed that I couldn’t use it. So I guess I would rather have kids at home, able to witness the eclipse under a parent or guardian’s supervision, than forced into a gym. But I am a little disappointed that educators aren’t taking advantage of this as a teaching opportunity and a chance for students to experience this incredible event together. 

Now that parents have been given the role of de facto science teachers, any tips on explaining the awesomeness of this moment to the next gen?
There are a lot of great videos on our Discover the Universe webpage, so you can check that out in the days and weeks leading up. You can talk about how this is a rare event and explain why it’s so special. 

I’m assuming eclipses don’t take rain checks. What happens if April 8 is overcast?
Ah! We will cry. Overcast weather would prevent us from seeing the moon covering the sun, but we would still be able to notice a lot of the environmental effects. I know there are some astronomers travelling to the US because the path of totality also goes through Texas, where you’re a lot more likely to have good weather than you are in Canada in April. Even here in Ontario, you can do a bit of weather chasing between Hamilton, Niagara and PEC. 

Have you made party plans?
I will definitely be getting out of the city to witness the full effects. I know the physics and astronomy team at McMaster is doing something, so maybe we’ll go there depending on the forecast. We will definitely find a way to celebrate.

Cue the Bonnie Tyler! Any other essential eclipse tracks?
“Black Hole Sun.” I know that’s not scientifically accurate—an eclipse has nothing to do with a black hole—but it keeps popping into my head.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.