With interest rapidly building for the upcoming total solar eclipse in the USA on August 21, 2017, I became curious about the rarity of total eclipses in America. The very first total eclipse I witnessed was on March 7, 1970. The path of totality crossed the southeastern USA and included portions of Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia and Nantucket.
Another total eclipse was visible in the USA from the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota) on February 26, 1979. Although a total eclipse was seen on the Big Island of Hawaii on July 11, 1991, no other total eclipse is visible from the lower 48 states of the USA between 1979 and 2017 – a lapse of over 38 years!
Map 1 shows the path of all total (and annular) eclipses through the continental USA during the last 50 years of the 20th century. Besides the 1970 and 1979 eclipses, the only other USA total eclipses during this period were on July 20, 1963 (Alaska and Maine) and June 30, 1954 (Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan).
Map 2 shows all total (and annular) eclipses through the continental USA during the first 50 years of the 21st century. Looking beyond 2017, the next total eclipse through the USA is on April 8, 2024 and crosses 13 states (Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine). The total eclipse of August 23, 2044 crosses Montana and North Dakota. It is followed one year later by the total eclipse of August 12, 2045 which also crosses 13 states (California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida). Although a total eclipse occurs on March 30, 2033 it is only visible from northern Alaska.
If we only count total eclipses visible from the lower 48 states, we have 4 eclipses from 1951 to 2000, and 4 more from 2001 to 2050. Put another way, there are 8 chances to view a total eclipse from the USA in the period spanning just over a single lifetime. And that’s not even considering the fact that cloudy weather will likely hide half of them from view! Rare events indeed! And one more argument not to miss the Great American Total Eclipse of 2017.
But what if we look many centuries into the future? Does every one of the lower 48 states get a total eclipse in the next 1000 years? Map 3 shows the result of plotting the path of every total eclipse from 2001 through 3000. The country is almost completely covered by eclipse paths. Nevertheless, there are few unlucky locations that do not get a total eclipse over the next 1,000 years. Two examples include western Texas and southern New Mexico. Fear not because they will all eventually fall within the Moon’s shadow sometime. You just have to wait long enough.
There is something compelling about the pattern of eclipse tracks crossing familiar places many hundreds of years in the past and future. It was this fascination that inspired me to publish a new book Atlas of Central Solar Eclipses in the USA.
Fred Espenak is a scientist emeritus at Goddard Space Flight Center. For decades, he has been NASA's expert on eclipses, and some of you may know him as Mr. Eclipse. Fred maintains NASA's official eclipse web site (eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov) as well as his personal web site on eclipse photography (mreclipse.com). Now retired and living in rural Arizona, Fred spends most clear nights losing sleep and photographing the stars (astropixels.com). His latest website is devoted to helping you enjoy eclipses (www.eclipsewise.com). He is an EarthSky content partner.