Tech and Science

Things we’ve learned from solar eclipses and hopefully we’ll learn this time

Next Monday, countless Canadians will marvel for a few precious minutes as the sky darkens and the moon slips directly between the Earth and the sun – a rare and remarkable spectacle in the cosmic ballet not seen in much of Canada in decades.

“It’s one of the most fascinating natural phenomena we can observe,” astronomer Julie Bolduc-Duval said in an interview with CTV News on Monday. “It’s fantastic that we all get the chance to see it…for free, over our heads.”

But also notable are the myriad impacts that a celestial event like the April 8 solar eclipse can have, from an associated increase in traffic accidents in its path to measurable impacts on social interactions and wildlife behavior.

Here are some lessons we’ve learned from past solar eclipses that we’ll hopefully understand better this time:

Say “Awe”

It’s no secret that eclipses can produce miracles. But a team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine has found that the emotional impact of a solar eclipse can actually be measured.

A 2022 data review covering millions of social media users during the 2017 solar eclipse showed a notable increase in what researchers called “prosocial, affiliative, humble and collective language” among those in its path. compared to those who were outside of it.

“For thousands of years, humans have looked to the sky to find inspiration and guidance,” the study says. “Awe-inspiring astronomical events such as a total solar eclipse can produce tendencies—from greater attention to one’s own group to motivation to care about and join others—that are critical to collective life.”

Further research found that users who showed “heightened awe” during and around the eclipse used this language more frequently, compared to their own online posts before the eclipse and to less awed users.

“I like to think that millions of us will be looking at the sky at the same time,” Bolduc-Duval said. “There are so many things that divide and polarize us these days. But everyone will be looking up at the eclipse…that’s a really nice thought.”

Eyes on the road

While many will abandon their routine to enjoy the spectacle, many others will experience the eclipse as just another Monday afternoon, at and around rush hour, which could mean having to get behind the wheel.

A new study from the University of Toronto (U of T) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) found that mesmerizing visual phenomena and speeding down the highway just don’t mix, based on the results of the last total solar eclipse in North America.

“We found a significant increase in traffic risk in the United States at the time of the total solar eclipse,” lead investigator Donald Redelmeier said in a U of T news release.

This is what researchers found when they examined records from a US database of traffic fatalities Traffic risks in their sample increased by almost a third in the three days surrounding the 2017 solar eclipse. They found that the increase equated to an average of one additional accident every 25 minutes, one additional death every 95 minutes, and a total of 46 additional fatalities.

Increased traffic, unknown destinations and routes, excessive speeding and roadside stops could all be responsible for the increase, said Redelmeier, who drew a comparison to similar risk increases on major holidays such as Thanksgiving.

“Doctors could advise patients to obey speed limits, minimize distractions, leave more distance, wear a seat belt and never drive impaired,” UBC co-investigator John Staples said in the release.

“More broadly, stakeholders should work toward a transportation system that minimizes traffic risks, tolerates human error and optimizes accident recovery,” Redelmeier said.

Animal anomalies

For people across the continent, the solar eclipse is a long-awaited event with numerous warnings and centuries of scientific research to understand the context.

However, animals probably won’t get the memo.

There have long been anecdotal reports of strange wildlife behavior during celestial events such as solar eclipses, ranging from nocturnal animals instinctively assuming that twilight has come early to a more directionless, panicked response, as for most animals this is a completely will be a new experience.

For a study published in 2020, a team of US researchers visited the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, SC to monitor 17 species of mammals, birds and reptiles during the 2017 solar eclipse.

They found that about three out of four species exhibited behavior outside the norm, with the majority switching to their natural evening or nighttime routines and five species, including gorillas, baboons, flamingos, giraffes and parrots, showing fearful or fearful responses.

A Follow-up study is scheduled for this year’s solar eclipse.

NASA researchers have also been studying the effects of the solar eclipse on the animal kingdom, recruiting human volunteers for the partial solar eclipse in 2023 and again for the total solar eclipse in April this year to monitor the change in natural noise levels and other observations in their region, such as chirping of crickets, to be monitored hours earlier than planned.

The Eclipse Soundscapes Projectitself a revival of a 1930s study, is expected to involve more than 2,000 volunteers across North America this year.

“We are pleased to invite the public to participate in this opportunity to conduct real and meaningful scientific research as equal participants,” said project co-leader Henry “Trae” Winter in a press release.

Atmospheric waves

Next week’s event is expected to be a beautiful and breathtaking sight, but for those studying the atmosphere itself, it presents a far more exciting opportunity: controlled, predictable data.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB) plan to take advantage of their approximately two-minute total solar eclipse window to measure how solar radiation affects the ionospherea layer of Earth’s atmosphere that extends 60 to 1,000 kilometers across the sky and is critical to the planet’s radio signals.

The brief interruption in the flow of energy from the sun to the earth caused by the solar eclipse allows unique conditions for learning the dynamics of the ionosphereThis could help scientists understand the impact of launching and maintaining satellites, manned missions to space, and telecommunications around the world.

“The ionosphere is like a wavy surface in a basin, and by measuring the properties of the waves generated there, we can learn more about the basin and what can disturb it, when and to what extent,” said researcher Terry Bullett in a press release from UCB.

Eesha Das Gupta, an astronomy researcher and doctoral candidate at U of T, says eclipses have long provided research opportunities for a variety of disciplines and fields, including visual evidence that supports Einstein’s theoretical research.

But as someone with a lifelong passion for astronomy, this time is also a personal opportunity.

“I’ve experienced the total solar eclipse before, but I didn’t actually see it,” she said in an interview with on Tuesday, recalling a solar eclipse in 2009 that was tragically obscured by storm clouds.

“I checked the weather forecast [for April 8] so often… I hope I can see the sun; There shouldn’t be a storm.

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