By Nikki and Brian McKim
Thousands of researchers, scientists, travelers, and families arrived in Falls City this past weekend to grab a front row seat for The Great American Eclipse. Among those weary travelers were a group of friends and former colleagues who had worked for Bell Labs in New Jersey. Half of their team drove the 1,300 mile, three-day trip to bring their telescope and other equipment to Falls City for the spectacular show, while the other half took the easier route, flying into Kansas City a few days prior.
Sunday the group, still sleepy from their journey was optimistic about the day ahead explaining the research that goes into the work they do. David Britz operates a man-made 80-pound telescope he had brought to Falls City from New Jersey.
“What we’re doing is looking at the sun at three separate frequencies of light. We’ re looking at the white light so we can see the corona. Then we have a Hydrogen Alpha telescope and a Calcium K-Line.” said Britz. “The hydrogen alpha allows the prominence of the red flames burning off the sun. The calcium shows images of where the magnetic fields interact under the sun’s gases, so it shows you the interaction of the magnetic fields on the surface of the Corona Sphere (an era of plasma that surrounds the sun). What we’re doing after that is, then we’re taking the hydrogen-alpha and the Calcium K and taking video of that and Gavin is controlling a camera through an automated software program to control the white lights camera and make a movie of it,” said Britz.
The group consisting of Britz and his colleagues, Andy Zangle, Gavin Warnes and Stephen Rich, all buzzed with excitement at seeing their first clear eclipse. Britz talked about seeing his only eclipse in Australia years ago under hazy conditions. Zangle also saw his only total eclipse abroad, and under overcast conditions, so, the men exuded the kind of giddiness you get from observing children on Christmas Eve. You could feel the excitement in the air.
“This happens in any place on earth every 374 years. So this is Falls City’s chance, which is why some of us drove 1,300 miles here, and Stephen and I flew here. You have to travel to get to an eclipse, so you are lucky that one has come to you in your lifetime.” said Warnes. More than being in awe of the beauty of the total eclipse was what the group was hoping to learn from the event.
“The more we get to know about the sun the more we can predict massive storms, solar storms, flares, and high-speed coronal mass ejections. Long-term, the stuff we have to know about is that high-speed, high charge particles cause our magnetic field to fluctuate, and that causes power outages and can destroy computer systems and networks. As our technology is getting closer to one-volt type devices, we become extremely sensitive to the large voltage surges and were in a period now where the sun doesn’t have a lot of sunspots. That’s great, it’s nice and calm, but it builds up more and more like a pressure cooker, and suddenly it explodes into extremely violent storms, which lead to power outages and networks crashing to their knees and were really vulnerable to that. By studying this we can predict this ahead of time.” said Britz
“I work for large telecommunications. We need about two days to shut our networks down. The coronal mass ejection travels about 2,485 miles per second, takes about three days to get to us. So the more we know about what’s happening, what’s coming at us, the sooner we can shut out networks down, so they don’t get fried,” Britz continued. “The sun is a wonderful thing, it gives us life, it gives us food, but it can also take away. As we live more of a technology-dependent society, we have to understand a whole lot more about it. There are a whole lot of us out here trying to learn more about it.”
Why Falls City though?
The eclipse worked its way from Portland OR. all the way through to Charleston, S.C., what made Falls City so special? The men said they started to look for hotel accommodations about three years ago and booked in Falls City about two years. They explained that if you flock to the west coast, you have a total eclipse in the morning and have to plan for the haze. If you go to the east coast, you have to plan for the afternoon chance of some storms.
“If you looked at the rainfall averages, and the cloud cover averages for Nebraska and Iowa on this part of the path it was better than 50 percent, so it meant we had a better than 50 percent chance of having a clear day. Though we are praying to the gods that it will be clear, also we are within ten seconds of the longest duration. The suns 60 degrees above the horizon which gets us above a lot of the atmospheric turbulence, it nestled down to where can I find a hotel.” said Britz.
“A hotel with a grass field is important,” said Zangle“Cause you don’t want to be on the concrete over there because you will have a reflection of light so you wanted a hotel where you can have electricity and a hotel with a grass field.”
Monday morning started with partly cloudy conditions, but, it was veiled in hopeful optimism. The group was up early setting up their computers and telescope filled with excitement, and along with most of the other influx of enthusiasts ascending on Falls City, the clouds weren’t going to dampen spirits quite yet.
Between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m. Harlan Street started filling up with out of town vehicles, and there was a strong local police presence to keep everyone at ease. Foot traffic began to pick up as well as our guests walked around discovering all of what Falls City has to offer. Lines were long as people waited for their meals during the overwhelmingly popular Chamber sponsored ‘Dine in the Dark’ lunch on Stone Street. Music played as people danced on the Courthouse lawn and others lay on blankets staring up at the sky.
Falls City doubled in size and buzzed with excitement as a D.J. counted down until the moment of totality. Campers lined the parking lot of Stanton Lake; charter buses sat in front of Sacred Heart as the occupants waited on the football field until it was time for the big event. Locals sat outside their homes, parking lots at the Elks Club, North School, Sun Mart and other places around town were filled with out of town guests just waiting for the show.
The clouds got thicker and darker and didn’t look like they were going to break up anytime soon. Back at Vision Inn the group who had traveled three days and 1,300 miles were rapidly losing hope. A passerby asked Britz if there was any hope of seeing the eclipse, Britz just somberly shook his head no. The men sat with their telescope covered and their eyes glued to their radars waiting for an opening. The day they had dreamed about and planned for, for three years was quickly slipping away.
As the darkness of the totality of the eclipse set in, the God’s opened the sky for a brief moment over Falls City giving a glimpse of the ‘Baily’s Beads effect’ which brought happiness and cheers. The cheers from the downtown crowd could be heard as far north as Vision Inn where those cheers were met with cheers of their own. Those outside of Falls City were treated to a fireworks show at the moment of totality but were unable to see the actual moment of totality due to cloud cover. Toward the beginning of the end of the total eclipse, the group was treated to the famed ‘Diamond Ring Effect,’ which was met with gasps and cheers. As quickly as the night fell, the light returned, and our guests left town, and it was business as usual almost like nothing had ever happened.
Those who had looked forward to today for years didn’t regret choosing Falls City or hold any anger with how the day unfolded, “Obviously there’s a lot of sorrow and a sense of disappointment, but we will keep on keeping on. The most important thing today was for people to just sit back and enjoy it because at the end of the day the memory of the event is all that matters.” said Britz.
“Nature doesn’t always give us what we want. If we can inspire one young scientist that would be great because we will be needing many in the future. We are a team that works together, not individuals.” In the end, the researchers were able to capture pictures of a partial eclipse with their telescope, some even showing three separate sunspots on the surface.
The eclipse, while it may not have lived up to some expectations, was still a moving and memorable experience for many.