Meteorologist Mark Breen discusses eclipse viewers' worst fear: Clouds
For over 40 years, Mark Breen, Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium’s senior meteorologist and planetarium director, has served as our Eye on the Sky.
But in all of his years, Mark has never experienced a total solar eclipse. That is, until later this year, when, on the afternoon of April 8, one will pass directly over parts of Vermont.
Vermont Public's Jenn Jarecki spoke with Meteorologist Mark Breen about what Vermonters can expect on eclipse day. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: First off, can you explain to listeners what a total solar eclipse is and why it's such a big deal?
Mark Breen: Sure, a total solar eclipse happens in just a relatively narrow spot on the Earth, when the moon is perfectly lined up between the Earth and the sun. So, it actually blocks the sun — the moon's size and distance is just right so that it just barely covers the sun's disk, often for just a minute or two. And the path of it, relatively small across the earth, less than 1/10 of 1%, during any particular eclipse. This happens fairly rarely. The last one in Vermont in 1932.
Jenn Jarecki: Burlington had its cloudiest January since 1951 this year. Mark, are you expecting that clouds are something we'll have to contend with on eclipse day?
Mark Breen: I'd like to say no, but that's historically not the case. I've been looking at this really for more than a year, knowing the eclipse was coming up and starting to compile some data, specifically for April 8 and cloud cover. And as I've looked through the records at the Fairbanks Museum — which actually extend back into the 1890s — the average amount of cloud cover on April 8 runs between 70 and 80%.
Jenn Jarecki: Are there any contingency plans in place in the event of poor weather? I hate to ask, but.
Mark Breen: Well, it is something that we have to consider. And so, there are a few things that we can do. One, we can certainly because of the worldwide internet connections, we can see what's going on in other locations. So, we will be able to see something, that's certainly the case.
Jenn Jarecki: Well, Mark, we heard from Lynn in Queechee about the special eclipse glasses. When should people wear them and when should they be sure not to wear them? I mean, is there anything that someone might miss by having the glasses on?
Mark Breen: Well, sure, the eclipse glasses are very important, they're really critical in terms of the period of time until the sun is completely eclipsed. There actually is this period of time — when we call this totality — when the moon is completely covering up the sun, and at that point, you don't want to be wearing your eclipse glasses because they are designed to filter out the sunlight. But when there is no sunlight, what we can see is a glowing sort of aura, almost around the sun. What this really is, is the sun's atmosphere called its corona. And with eclipse glasses on, you would not be able to see that. So, just as the last glimmer of light from the sun disappears, it's safe to take off those eclipse glasses. And the minute that you start to see even a hint of sunlight coming back out on the other side of the moon, you need to put them back on.
Jenn Jarecki: Thank you for clarifying that. And Mark, I wonder, is there anything in particular that you're excited to see on eclipse day?
Mark Breen: Well, I'm obviously really excited to see the eclipse itself. In all my years, I have never seen a total eclipse of the sun. And really excited to see one, the corona that I just mentioned, but also when it gets semi-dark. And this is not going to be total darkness. This will be more like twilight, but it will be dark enough that some of the planets will actually appear on either side of the sun.
Jenn Jarecki: Well, clearly, as a meteorologist who has been doing this work for over 40 years, I can hear your excitement about seeing a total solar eclipse. Mark, what makes it special that the path of totality is here in Vermont?
Mark Breen: Well, it's very unique, in fact, that places the Fairbanks Museum's planetarium as the only planetarium that's within the path of the eclipse in New England. And so we're really excited to have it here. It also means that it's a very rare event — the last one in 1932. The next one seen in Vermont, and it'll be in Southern Vermont, isn't until the year 2079.
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