Pro Tips From Michael Fortner, Eclipse-Chaser

Aug 18, 2017

Where will you watch the solar eclipse?

People within a 70-mile wide band stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will be able to see a total eclipse for a few minutes Monday: The rest of us will have to settle for a partial solar eclipse.

But not Mike Fortner. He’s a retired Northern Illinois University physics professor and State Representative from West Chicago. He, his wife, and two children traveled to Europe to catch a full eclipse in 1999. Now they’re in western Idaho, in an area that’s in the path of the total eclipse and expected to be cloud-free.

Fortner credits – or blames – his life-long love of the celestial phenomenon. He said that, as a kid, he had a small telescope for looking at planets and stars. He discovered that partial eclipses happen every few years, but true total eclipses are much more special.

“When I was a senior in college, a number of us chartered a bus to Winnipeg, Canada, and watched a true total eclipse of the sun, when the moon totally covers the sun,” he said. “It got me hooked on seeing them.”

Yep, he’s an “eclipse chaser.” Although he quickly points out he’s not in the same league as the pros “who have seen dozens.” Monday’s will be his fifth.

Here Vs. There

So what’s the difference between what the Fortners will see Monday in Idaho and what they would have seen back at home in the Chicago suburbs? It’s a big difference. Fortner says that, in northern Illinois, the sky will dim noticeably and more than 90% of the sun will be covered. But in the total eclipse zone, he’ll be able to see the corona, stars and planets, and won’t need to wear lenses at the height of the eclipse. He’ll also have a pink horizon to enjoy, which will look a lot like sunrise.

Eclipse glasses
Credit Victor Yehling/WNIJ

So what can a procrastinator in northern Illinois do? Fortner says the most important thing is to get your hands on a pair of eclipse glasses. Make sure they are certified and strong enough to protect your eyes. He recommends guidelines from the American Astronomical Society. A welder’s mask with a rating of 14 will also do. Without eye protection, you still can enjoy the show the old fashioned way: pinhole viewers and shadow-watching.

If you’re still thinking of driving somewhere to catch the total eclipse, think about how long it will take to get there -- and don’t expect to get a hotel room. Fortner says many were booked up a year ago. He’s been planning for this since the European solar eclipse in 1999. Also, the National Weather Service is among the many websites offering advice on the best weather for viewing.

Greatest Show On Earth?

Eclipses bring people together. Not only will Mike Fortner reunite with his family to watch it, but they’re meeting up with friends and some of his former scientific colleagues. He says knowing the science behind the eclipse is great but not necessary to appreciate it.

“You don’t have to be a geologist to stare in awe at the Grand Canyon. You don’t have to be an astronomer to appreciate the wonder of a solar eclipse,” he said. “And the difference is that the Grand Canyon is available every day of the year. But a solar eclipse only covers a given part of the earth, on the average, once every 375 years.

"But the good part for southern Illinois is that there is an eclipse crossing south to north in seven years. Southern Illinois will have two total eclipses in less than seven years.”

It probably will be the most recorded eclipse in the history of the world. The European eclipse in 1999 was heavily attended: Total eclipses since then have been over oceans and less-populated areas. So, in a nation where just about everyone has a smartphone and ways to share their photos and video, expect a lot of sharing – and, hopefully, a lot of information that will be meaningful to the scientific community.

Just don’t forget your eclipse-strength filters for your eyes and equipment.