The views of this article are the perspective of the author and may not be reflective of Confessions of the Professions.
In the simplest terms possible, a solar eclipse refers to the passing of the moon between the sun and the Earth. When an eclipse happens, the sun will be temporarily obscured from vision, and the side of the moon that faces the Earth will appear totally dark, due to the lack of light reflecting off its surface. It’s actually casting a shadow on Earth when it blocks out the sun!
It’s common to confuse solar eclipses with lunar eclipses. During a lunar eclipse, the Earth’s shadow is falling on the moon instead.
An additional fun fact about the moon, by the way, is that we only appear to see one side of it due to a scientific phenomenon called “tidal braking”. The moon is synchronized to Earth’s gravitational pull, so even though it appears to move across the sky and have multiple phases, we only see one side of the moon’s surface here on Earth.
Some rays of sunlight will still be visible from behind the moon during an eclipse, but they are dangerous to look at directly. Being fully or partially blocked by the moon – also known as a “full eclipse” or a “partial eclipse” – does not make the parts of the sun we can see any safer to look at.
How Often Do Solar Eclipses Occur?
On any given year, there are only between two or five solar eclipses, and a total eclipse only happens approximately once every eighteen months. Five is a rare number for solar eclipses, and two is more common. There have not been five solar eclipses to occur in a single year since 1935, and it won’t happen again until the year 2206.
They are only possible during the New Moon phase of the moon’s orbit, but not every New Moon means an eclipse will happen. This is because, despite the moon’s rotation being affected by Earth’s gravity, they don’t follow exactly the same orbit around the sun.
Furthermore, each solar eclipse is only visible from one half, or hemisphere, of Earth. A lunar eclipse is visible by the entire hemisphere when it occurs, but a solar eclipse is not. A total solar eclipse that will occur on April 8, 2024, for example, will travel across a path that makes it visible from only ten of the U.S.’s fifty states.
This means that, not only is the solar eclipse a rare event, but your chances of seeing it are less than halved and dependent on where you are on the day its happening. Even if you’re in the right time at the right location, other factors like poor weather can also hinder the viewing of a solar eclipse.
And a total eclipse is the rarest of all!
At any given point on Earth, only one total solar eclipse will be visible every three to four centuries. In other words, a person who has lived for one hundred years, and has resided in the same city their entire life, can only be expected to have seen one total solar eclipse in their lifetime.
Tips for Viewing Solar Eclipses Safely
As mentioned previously, looking at the sun during an eclipse is bad for your eyes. Exposure to the bright light emitted by an eclipse can cause retinal damage, destroying cells located in the back of your eyes, or result in retinal burns. Failure to protect your eyes can have devastating consequences, or even result in blindness. The safest way to admire a solar eclipse is by wearing protective equipment, like specialized glasses, for your eyes. Regular sunglasses will not suffice!