CARBONDALE – Though all eyes will be on the total solar eclipse due to arrive in Southern Illinois well more than a year from now, a byproduct of the celestial happening might prove to be as rare if not more for the region.
And it has local tourism, business and emergency representatives preparing – now. Southern Illinois University in Carbondale has been planning for three years.
After all, how often do hundreds of thousands of people converge on the region for a single event? Some eclipse experts put the number of potential visitors in the millions.
“They are coming from all over the place,” Brandy Nance, marketing director for Blue Sky Vineyards, said of calls her business has already received about accommodations. “I mean all over the state. We’ve had some from China that have called in. They’re from everywhere.”
Make those two events
On Aug. 21 next year, the first total solar eclipse over the U.S. mainland since 1979 will reach its point of greatest duration a few miles south of Carbondale, totaling about two minutes and 40 seconds when it arrives around 1:21 p.m.
It will be the first total eclipse – during which day will literally turn into night complete with dropping temperatures and visible stars – to traverse the entire mainland from coast to coast since June 8, 1918.
If you miss it, you’ll have a second chance when the centerline of totality – roughly a 70-mile wide path of the moon entirely shielding the sun – will return April 8, 2024.
The two centerlines seven years apart will intersect over Cedar Lake, bringing with them astronomers, students, first-time viewers and those who are known as eclipse chasers from around the world.
“I am expecting it is going to be in the millions,” Southern Illinois University’s Bob Baer said of the number of people anticipated in the region for the eclipse’s first pass.
Baer directs public astronomy observations through SIU’s physics department and is co-chair of the university’s eclipse planning committee.
SIU officials are projecting 30,000 to 50,000 visitors on campus for the eclipse. Among them will be NASA astronomers, Baer said, but more on that later.
It’s hard to predict. With the 2017 eclipse traversing across multiple states coupled with a weather pattern far too early to forecast, no one can yet say with certainty how many might descend upon the area.
Time to shine
The potential avalanche has folks like Williamson County Tourism Bureau CEO Shannon D. Johnson and a committee of tourism directors, economic development officials and more now working to both market the region’s offerings and ensuring that local businesses know what’s coming so they, too, can prepare.
Not knowing just how many people might roll into Southern Illinois and for how long both complicates preparations and makes them imperative, Johnson said.
“It is definitely more than any of us could have possibly fathomed,” Johnson said of the eclipse’s popularity. “If we do this right, we have an opportunity to learn and grow from it and do it again in 2024.”
Or, even lure first-time visitors back to the region simply because of its tourism amenities, she said. Help could be on the way through a pending $42,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant under the agency’s Rural Development program.
The USDA approached Johnson about applying for the grant, which would aid marketing efforts including a website dedicated to promoting a 16-county region in connection to the eclipse and social media, she said.
A double-edged sword emerges, though. The guests are wanted, but can the area accommodate that many people all at once?
With some 300,000 acres of public land in Southern Illinois, squeezing hundreds of thousands into our space might not be an issue.
Numerous private property owners have already been asking county officials what they can and cannot do when it comes to hosting out-of-towners.
But how many will want to stay in hotels, go to restaurants, buy gas? Hotel rooms alone could be hard to come by, considering that just in Williamson County there are roughly 1,300.
It could become overwhelming, Blue Sky’s Nance conceded. Blue Sky is directly in the path of the total eclipse’s centerline.
“We are going to try and plan how many people we can actually accommodate,” Nance said, adding that some experts have told her company they could have as many as 10,000 people there alone. “We are trying to figure that.”
The vineyard has launched an auction for three-night stays at two of its bed and breakfast suites – bidding starts at $600 for one – as well as an eclipse festival that will feature Class A camper parking, food, music and a special-label release of a wine in honor of the eclipse.
For more information on the vineyard’s plans, go to http://www.blueskyvineyard.com/eclipse-2017.
Adding to the challenge is the start of classes at SIU on the day of the eclipse.
Three years in the making
By the time the 2017 eclipse arrives, it will have been three years since SIU officials began planning for it, Baer of the physics department said.
“It’s a really, really big project. It’s hard to overstate how big of a project it is,” he said. “It is probably the biggest event that will be at SIU in most people’s lifetime.”
Baer said there have been discussions about scheduling including move-in dates but one priority is to ensure students are on campus for eclipse.
The eclipse committee also has a public safety component, and discussions are under with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, public health departments and local law enforcement.
Several activities centered on the eclipse are already set, including using the football stadium and the surrounding athletic complex for observations, he said. Indoor viewing, lectures and tailgating are also planned.
Baer is in charge of the eclipse committee’s scientific outreach. He’s also a member of the Astronomical Association of Southern Illinois, which plans to hold events at Giant City State Park.
The project goes beyond merely hosting enthusiasts. Coordination with a number of scientific outlets has been ongoing, among them NASA, Baer said. Others include the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and a number of universities for science projects.
This week, he will be in Dallas for a NASA panel review as a member of the Citizen Continental Telescopic Eclipse Experiment, which will use 60 telescopes across the country to observe the sun’s corona during the eclipse to better understand solar flares.
Citizen CATE was one of three groups selected by NASA to support science education in connection with the eclipse. NASA also will be on SIU’s campus for a webcast.
“This is really blowing up into a massive project,” Baer said.
Baer has also been giving presentations at community workshops this year and more are planned including later this month for public school teachers and a conference in June at SIU by the American Astronomical Society.
Past workshops have involved eclipse chasers, such as Dan McGlaun from Indiana. A former math teacher and now works in information technology. He has witnessed 11 total eclipses in various locations around the globe.
SIU’s website is http://eclipse.siu.edu/.
There are too many variables, like the ever-changing weather, to say with confidence how many will be here come August of 2017. But if the weather is poor elsewhere in the country, a million-plus people are plausible, McGlaun said.
“That is not outside the realm of possibility,” he said.
Plus there is the fact that the eclipse will last the longest in Southern Illinois, a point that NASA has been publicizing.
McGlaun believes a total eclipse is an experience like no other, he said, accounting for the chase phenomenon and making duration all that more of a draw.
“It’s the coolest, greatest, amazing and most wonderful thing you will ever see in your life. I continue to want to go to every one of them because they are so stunning,” McGlaun said.
He stressed that it is critical to be within the totality pathway for the full experience. Being slightly outside of that pathway, where only a partial eclipse can be seen, does not provide the same effect.
Coming full circle, speaking of eyes
One other component of early preparation is to educate the public about the dos and don’ts of observing the eclipse.
SIU plans to provide glasses designed specifically for observing the eclipse. Standard sunglasses are not sufficient.
For more information, visit http://eclipse.siu.edu/about-the-eclipse/eclipse-viewing-safety/.