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Whatever you do, don't look (and 2 more eclipse travel tips)

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, July 26, 2017, 5:46 PM - The August 21 Total Solar Eclipse promises to be an amazing experience for all who can behold it, but here are three interesting and potentially nightmarish travel impacts that may result from the event.

Driving distraction

When driving around on our daily commutes and errands, a considerable amount of effort can be spent in keeping the glare from the Sun out of our eyes, but what happens when people behind the wheel start to notice a conspicuous black dot passing through that patch of glare in the sky?

To start off the day, no matter where you are across the country, if skies are at least reasonably clear, the Sun will be visible, shining brightly in the sky. The Moon, as it will be showing its dark side to us, and thus will be lost in the bright blue sky, will be nowhere to be seen. At some time during the day, however, depending on where you are, that's going to change.

Check the map below (click to enlarge it) to see what time the eclipse starts, peaks and ends, for your area.

If you're prepared for it, very likely you'll be set up somewhere, wearing some eclipse glasses, or with a pinhole projector, or some other safe way to view the Sun, to catch however much you can of the Total Solar Eclipse. Or, you may - unfortunately - be stuck indoors, with no way of watching (or watching it happen online).

What if, however, you find yourself driving in your car, commuting to or from work, or running errands, and you suddenly realize that the Sun is slowly disappearing behind the Moon?

The best thing to do is to just put your sunvisor down to block your view of the Sun, and wait until you're able to safely pull over somewhere to view the eclipse.

Please do not take your eyes off the road, in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the eclipse. It will take more than a second or two to resolve anything anyways, due to the Sun's brightness, which will equate to more than a second or two of distracted driving around other potentially distracted drivers. Also, looking directly at the Sun with unshielded eyes, when you are not inside the Moon's umbral shadow, can cause temporary or permanent blindness (depending on how long you look). 

In March of 2015, when a Total Solar Eclipse was passing over the North Atlantic Ocean, so that the United Kingdom and northern Europe would see a partial eclipse, motorists were specifically warned about the dangers of distracted driving during an eclipse. For this 2017 eclipse, Canada will be in a similar situation, as we will only see a partial eclipse across the country. The path of totality - the path the Moon's umbral shadow takes across the planet during the eclipse - only runs through the United States, from Oregon to South Carolina.

It takes anywhere from 60 to 80 minutes for the eclipse to reach maximum, depending on your location. The closer to maximum the eclipse gets, the more of the Sun will be behind the Moon, the dimmer the light will get and the more noticeable the eclipse will be. This will also present the greatest temptation to look up at it. Again, unless you are wearing the proper eye protection, DO NOT LOOK!

Rather than risk it, it's better to remain alert to everything that is going on around you, and wait until you can safely pull over, to watch the eclipse.

Also, PLEASE DO NOT PUT ECLIPSE GLASSES ON WHILE YOU ARE DRIVING. The Mylar filters in these glasses are designed to only let the barest amount of sunlight through them, and nothing else. So, while you would have the glasses on, you would be blind to everything else going on around you.

Additionally, avoid trying to take pictures of the eclipse with your cellphone. Firstly, there's the issue of distracted driving, but aiming your unshielded cellphone camera directly at the Sun could damage it, and it's not going to look like much anyway.

Now, what would the eclipse even look like, for someone without eclipse glasses on? Of course, we're all going to be heeding the safety warnings, but if the Sun was in someone's field of view while the eclipse was going on, there wouldn't be very much to see, unless the eclipse is very close to totality. Any portion of the Sun that peaks out from behind the Moon is still going to be glaringly bright, to both our eyes and to cameras. That's why we are warned of the dangers of looking at the eclipse without protection, because there is a temptation to stare at it long enough that we can actually resolve something significant, and by that time, we can suffer a sunburn on our corneas. The same UV light that causes that sunburn can impact on the inner workings of a cellphone camera, as well.

Keeping our sunvisors and our cellphones down while driving during the eclipse will ensure our eyes are protected, will reduce the temptation to look up at the Sun, and will avoid distracted driving.

RELATED: Here's how to safely watch the August 21 Total Solar Eclipse

Flying high

Undoubtedly, a great number of people will be travelling by aircraft on August 21. Some will be doing so specifically to see the eclipse from above the clouds, while for others it will simply be a coincidence.

Regardless of the reason for being on a flight above North America during the eclipse, all passengers should be ready with a pair of eclipse glasses, or they should be prepared to keep their window's sunshade down for the duration.

While it is possible that your airline may decide to supply eclipse glasses for the passengers travelling during that time, it is safer to assume they will not have something for you. Without needing to consider potential cloudy conditions, anyone on a flight who is on the sunward side of the plane will have an excellent view of the eclipse as the Sun passes behind the Moon.

Just take a look at what passengers aboard one Alaska Airlines flight saw during the March 2016 Total Solar Eclipse over the Pacific Ocean.

If you are caught on the flight without eclipse glasses and the airline does not provide anything, the best option available is simply to close your sunshade and ignore it (watch a movie, read a book, etc). As mentioned above, a glance is unlikely to reveal anything at all unless most of the Sun is already covered by the Moon's disk, and looking at an eclipse with your unshielded eyes can cause temporary or permanent blindness. It's better to just wait until you land, to view the images and videos of the eclipse that will undoubtedly be posted to the internet and that will appear on the news.

That said, if you are lucky enough to be on a flight that passes right under the Moon's umbral shadow (the deepest, darkest part), you can actually look at the eclipse with unshielded eyes, for a minute or two, right when the plane is inside the shadow.

NASA has a list of specific flights across the United States that will be passing through or near the path of totality, at just the right time when the Moon's shadow will be passing. Of the multitude of flights that will be in the air at that time, remarkably, only three are known to be flying right through the path of totality as Moon's shadow is passing by.

1) Delta flight 2470 from Indianapolis to Atlanta, leaving Indianapolis at 12:40 pm,
2) Spirit Airlines flight 446 from Las Vegas to Chicago, leaving Las Vegas at 8:23 am, and
3) American Airlines flight 242 from Miami to Chicago, leaving Miami at 12:15 pm.

In addition, one specific flight from Alaska Airlines will also encounter the moon's shadow directly, but it won't be a coincidence. This flight will be chasing the eclipse out of Portland, Oregon, with the goal of being the very first to see the eclipse, out over the Pacific Ocean.

RELATED: What astronomical events are happening in Summer of 2017? Find out here!

EPIC traffic jam

This eclipse is getting a lot of hype as we approach the date. While there will undoubtedly be many people and organizations snapping pictures and streaming video (all with the proper solar filters), which will allow anyone outside of the path of totality to view the best part of the eclipse, there is the chance that this hype will spur millions to get into their cars on the morning of Monday, August 21, to make the drive to that narrow strip of the United States.

If this happens, the vehicles that stream towards that path could produce the worst traffic jam ever seen!

Michael Zeiler, of GreatAmericanEclipse.com, estimates that between 1.85 and 7.4 million people will visit the path of totality, all across the United States, on that day.

Click to enlarge. Credit: Michael Zeiler, GreatAmericanEclipse.com

That many people on the road, and many making the trip on the day of the eclipse, could cause a logistical nightmare in some areas of the country. Quite possibly, if enough people are on the road, many who hoped to reach the roughly 100 km wide path of totality may get stuck on the roads some distance away from it.

Additionally, while the communities that lie along the path of totality have likely been planning for this event for some time now, many of the smaller communities simply do not have the resources on hand to deal with the large crowds they may encounter on the day. Grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations may be dealing with volumes of customers far beyond their capabilities.

Angela Speck, a member of the American Astronomical Society's eclipse team from the University of Missouri, told Space.com that it could resemble a Zombie Apocalypse, except the zombies will need normal food, a place to sleep, and a place to use the bathroom.

"No town or city has the capacity to house so many visitors in hotels; nowhere has enough restaurants to feed such a huge crowd," she told Space.com. "Are there enough bathrooms? Probably not."

The best advice for people travelling to the path of totality is to arrive at your destination at least a day in advance. Bringing supplies, as if on a camping trip, will certainly help, even if you have arranged for a place to stay. Flexibility will be an invaluable resource, as well, in case you need to adjust your destination, due to traffic or crowds.

To plan the best location to view from, and the best route to take to that destination, go to GreatAmericanEclipse.com.

Sources: Young Drivers of Canada | NASA | Alaska Airlines | GreatAmericanEclipse.com | Space.com

Watch Below: Chasing the upcoming eclipse takes years of planning, a report from The Weather Network correspondent, Nathan Coleman

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