Anticipation is building for the total solar eclipse on April 8. On that day, parts of Mexico, the United States and Canada will be plunged into twilight-like darkness as the moon passes between the sun and the Earth.
Solar eclipses of any kind are rare, but total solar eclipses—in which the moon completely blocks the face of the sun—are even more uncommon. Between 2001 and 2100, just 68 total eclipses have occurred or will occur worldwide, representing a little more than 30 percent of all solar eclipses (including partial, annular and hybrid ones) during the century, according to NASA.
The most recent total solar eclipse visible from North America took place over the U.S. in August 2017. During that eclipse, the path of totality—the swath of Earth from which the moon appears to fully block the sun—spanned an area with an estimated 12 million residents.
In April, the path of totality is even wider and crosses over more densely populated areas, covering an estimated 31.6 million U.S. residents, according to NASA. Millions more are expected to travel to see this celestial spectacle, which won’t be repeated in North America for another 20 years.
“Many people, myself included, saw our first total solar eclipse in August 2017, and our immediate reaction was, ‘When can I see the next one?!’” Shauna Edson, an astronomy educator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, tells Smithsonian magazine in an email. “There’s a vivid, recent memory of this amazing event and a lot of people eager to share this next eclipse with their friends and family.”
If you’re hoping to experience the April total solar eclipse yourself, here’s what you need to know.
When and where will the solar eclipse happen?
The April 8 eclipse’s path of totality will start in Mexico, then head northeast through parts of several states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. From there, it will pass into Canada, starting with Ontario before sweeping through Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.
Cities located within the path of totality include San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, Texas; Little Rock, Arkansas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio; Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse, New York; Burlington, Vermont; Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; and Montreal, Quebec, Canada. In addition, some cruise lines have even planned to position their vessels within the path of totality during the eclipse.
The eclipse will start on Mexico’s Pacific coast a little after 11 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time and will end on the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland just after 5 p.m. Newfoundland Daylight Time. (Remember that the eclipse’s path will cross through several time zones, so if you’re traveling to see it, be sure to look up what time it will be visible from your destination.)
During that period, totality will last between three and four minutes in most places, with the longest duration (4 minutes and 28 seconds) taking place near Torreón, Mexico. This is much longer than the longest duration of totality in 2017, which lasted 2 minutes, 42 seconds near Carbondale, Illinois.
Along the path of totality, the temperature can drop by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit because of the lack of sunlight, according to NASA. Even though it’s the middle of the day, the darkness will be comparable to dawn or dusk.
Even if you won’t be in the path of totality, you might still be able to observe a partial eclipse, in which the moon appears to block a portion of the sun. “Pretty much all of North America will be able to see at least some part of the sun covered by the moon on that day, and it’s worth checking out no matter where you are,” says Edson.
The science behind a total solar eclipse
Solar eclipses occur so infrequently because of differences in size, distance and the orbital plane between the moon, the sun and the Earth. We experience total solar eclipses because of a lucky celestial coincidence: The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but it also happens to be 400 times farther away from Earth. As a result, the two orbs appear the same size in our sky.
But because the moon’s orbit is slightly tilted, it’s usually above or below the plane of the Earth and the sun. The moon’s orbit only intersects with this plane periodically and, when it does, it appears to pass directly in front of the sun. If this occurs when the moon is at the farthest point in its orbit away from Earth, it will appear a bit smaller in the sky, which creates an annular solar eclipse like the one that occurred in October 2023.
During total solar eclipses, the moon obscures the sun’s light, making the solar corona, or wispy outer atmosphere, visible from Earth. (The sun’s light typically outshines the corona, rendering it invisible.) As such, eclipses are an important time for scientists who study the corona, especially the part that’s closest to the sun, according to NASA.
Tips for watching the total eclipse
The best place to view the eclipse is from a spot along the path of totality. And while many hotels, campgrounds and vacation rentals are already booked up, you may still find availability in more rural places, reports the Wall Street Journal’s Jen Rose Smith.
If your budget and schedule allow it, the total solar eclipse is worth traveling for, says Edson.
“The eclipse is cool from anywhere, but totality is a completely different experience from even a 95 percent partial eclipse,” she says. “If it is feasible for your family, then it is absolutely worth pulling kids out of school and taking time off work to go see it.”
This may not be your last chance ever to see a total solar eclipse. But if you miss the April event, you’ll have to wait until 2044 to see one from North America again. (Total solar eclipses are happening between now and then, but you’ll just have to travel to another part of the world to see them.)
If you are planning an eclipse-centric getaway, Edson recommends arriving a few days early and staying a few days afterward. That way, you’ll be less likely to get caught in traffic.
“Watch the weather forecasts three days ahead, and have a backup location if your area is going to be cloudy,” she says. “Bring plenty of snacks and supplies, be gracious to the people who live in the place where you’re going and overall, just be patient. You’ll be surrounded by other people who are excited about witnessing this spectacle.”
If you can’t make it to the path of totality, fear not—you can still have a good experience observing the effects of a partial eclipse. Keep an eye out for crescent-shaped shadows under trees as the partial eclipse shines through their leaves, Edson says.
The Sun touches everything – but during a total solar eclipse, it might feel like it doesn’t!— NASA Sun & Space (@NASASun) January 24, 2024
On April 8, the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth, completely blocking the face of the Sun in parts of North America.
Do you have any photos of a past solar eclipse? Share below! pic.twitter.com/isBOOeRDC1
No matter where you choose to watch the eclipse, take steps to protect your eyes. Just as in 2017, you’ll need eclipse glasses if you plan to turn your gaze skyward. If you can, try to snag a pair early, as many vendors will sell out and free distribution centers may become overwhelmed, says Edson. Try to buy glasses from the American Astronomical Society’s approved list of vendors and, if you still have a pair left over from 2017, check to make sure they are still safe, Edson says.
Your sunglasses are not a substitute for eclipse glasses, and smoked glass is also not strong enough to protect your eyes, Edson adds.
Also, if you think pointing your camera or your phone at the sun will help you get around the need for eclipse glasses, think again. Looking at the eclipse through a camera lens, telescope or binoculars—even with your eclipse glasses—can cause severe damage to both your camera and your eyes. These devices need special solar filters.
In fact, Edson recommends forgetting photos all together—just put your phone away and enjoy the eclipse with your own glasses-clad eyes. As the moon crosses in front of the sun, take note of what’s happening around you—the brightness of the sky, shadows on the ground, the wind, the temperature and even the sounds of the animals and people.
“You’ll get frustrated by fiddling with the camera settings and miss half of the main event,” she says. “Plenty of photographers who know what they’re doing will capture the eclipse beautifully and share their images afterward. While it’s actually happening, just take it in with your senses and revel in what it makes you feel.”
As for timing, remember that, while the duration of totality lasts for just a few minutes, the entire eclipse takes several hours. Head outside well before totality and stick around afterward to marvel at the varying stages of the partial eclipse, Edson says. “[In 2017], I found it fascinating to check the shape of the sun in my glasses every few minutes and notice how much the moon had moved across it,” she says. “It was even cooler to realize that the gradual motion I was seeing was the moon moving through space in its orbit around the Earth, traveling at 2,288 miles per hour.”
Above all else, give yourself over fully to the eclipse-viewing experience, Edson says. Make friends with the people around you, cheer when the sky goes dark and embrace your emotions, whatever they may be.
“In 2017, I definitely felt a sense of unifying wonder around the eclipse,” she says. “Regardless of what human disagreements were happening on the ground, there was this beautiful celestial event that was bigger than all of us, and we could stand together for a few minutes to marvel at it. I like to think that this upcoming eclipse will affect even more of us that way.”