At first I didn’t understand this summer’s rumble and buzz about the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017. And I must admit that my skepticism while camping across the route of totality in Eastern Oregon: it looked like a desperate attempt for struggling communities to cash in an astrological phenomenon. Every gas station and convenience store stocked eclipse glasses, tee shirts, mugs and bumper stickers. Small quadrangles in city parks, fields and deserts were advertised at $200 per night.
For my part, I wasn’t so interested in the eclipse. I didn’t understand the fuss. So, the light goes out, I thought. And then it goes back on again. I’ve experienced any number of power outages over the years, and this, frankly, sounded less exhilarating than riding out a blackout during a low-pressure storm while playing Parcheesi in the cellar by lantern light, something I did any number of times growing up in Tornado Alley.
But news outlets predicted (and likely hoped for) all sorts of madness bordering on armageddon. There were warnings of shortages of fuel and fresh groceries. We were advised to stock up on drinking water. We were cautioned not to drive and my employer, Oregon State University, shuttered the campus, giving it over to the expected hordes of eclipse tourists.
But I was unable to join the gawkers on the grassy campus quads because I was assigned to film another aspect of the phenomenon. A group of students were launching a weather balloon equipped with a camera and tracking equipment. It would climb to eighty thousand feet and capture dramatic images of the eclipse shadow making landfall. Then the students would track it via satellite signal and share the dramatic high-resolution images. My job was to record the process.
As a media producer for the university tasked with creating videos and documentary films, I have to admit that I’m lucky to receive any number of cool assignments. I’ve been to tropical reefs and European forests on assignment with camera on hand. I’ve interviewed crusty oystermen and brilliant scientists working on the defining issues of our time. So in the project lottery, I sometimes draw the lucky straw, and getting a chance to be among the first Americans to observe the eclipse seventy miles off of the Oregon Coast seemed, at first, to rank among the best of them. Perhaps my eclipse experience might actually measure up to all of the hype after all.
But then the details started to come in. Suddenly the assignment started to slip in the rankings.
First, we learned that there was to be cloud cover out at sea and that we likely wouldn’t even see the eclipse. What’s more, we might not even be able to launch the balloon at all, rendering the whole cruise for naught. Next, high seas were expected, meaning our thirty-hour ride would be on stomach-dropping swells. Finally, many of the students and guests had never been to sea before. Anyone who’s crossed the bar in Oregon can tell you how newbies tend to fare on their first trip to the high seas.
While science is often exhilarating and fascinating, it’s also often a tedious and challenging grind. This was shaping up to fall into the latter category.
Oh well. In the name of science I packed up my camera gear and headed to the coast three hours before departure to fight the expected eclipse traffic.
Only there was no traffic. A few cars were streaming away from the ocean to flee the expected clouds and fog, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I’d brought a novel and a lawn chair, something I always keep on hand for trips to the coast, and I relished having a couple hours to kill by the surf with my feet stuffed into the cold sand. But a short stroll out on the beach was like walking into a sandblaster. A north wind was ripping spray from the tops of the breakers rendering beach reading impossible even with the wool blanket I’d brought along, so I hunkered down in a coffee shop and took my emergency dose of seasickness medicine.
We left the eerie calm of the port dock at sunset. The diesel engines on the Pacific Storm—a refitted fishing trawler with an impressive resume indicating that it should be nearing retirement—chugged us toward the clouds that were racing impossibly fast out past the bar. I found myself wanting to utter some movie cliché: it’s quiet, too quiet.
Sure enough, the first great drop over the lip of an incoming swell caused widened eyes and nervous sidelong glances. There were twenty of us on board, mostly crammed into the ship’s small lab. There were five members of the crew, more than a dozen students, a faculty advisor and a pair of reporters.
The seas were strong enough that the crew decided to secure the hatches. If you’ve ever been bounced around on the ocean for an extended period of time, you know how stuffy it can get in a crowded ship when the doors and windows are sealed. Add to that a half dozen weak stomachs, the odor of diesel fumes and the always distressing smell of marine heads and you have a recipe for mass sickness.
But fortunately, most stomachs held. The students, with sober looks of concentration and greenish casts, set to work. They checked equipment and tested systems. They reviewed their respective roles. One student was in charge of helium to inflate the balloon. Another, the satellite tracking system. Yet another was in charge of sealing the camera for when it crashed back down to the sea.
I liked these students. Most of them were studying engineering at the local community college with designs on transferring to the big university. They were serious. Realists. Several were older than average. They had day jobs and financial concerns. Some were making course corrections after a false start in the wrong direction.
I have interviewed a lot of impressive students, and I’m always humbled by their accomplishments. But community college transfers are an especially gritty and determined lot.
After a dozen hours of motoring west and a night of fitful sleeping curled up under a table in the lab, finally adjusting to the rhythm of the lurching swells, we rose bleary eyed as the boat neared the launch point. The students made their way to their stations, and before long they’d assembled on deck ready to inflate the balloon and its equipment, which consisted of a two and a half gallon bucket filled with electronics.
There was a tense moment when the fog and cloud cover was too thick for launch. The team only had clearance to proceed if the sky was at least 50% clear. Dawson, the team’s lead, took charge and tried to call the authorities via satellite phone for special permission to launch, but all channels were busy, reserved for eclipse emergencies.
Bt then the clouds parted. Maybe it was divine will or fate but more likely luck.
The skipper drove the boat into the wind so that the upper decks would provide some shelter while the students inflated the balloon on the ship’s bouncing stern. And then once they were ready, he turned broadside to the wind and the balloon was tugged skyward, ripped from the hands of the students. They cheered. Months of their time and effort drifted into the soup of intermittent clouds.
Now we had only to wait until the the balloon ascended to the determined height. Once it rose high enough, or was aloft for a set amount of time, the system was programmed to drop the bucket of equipment which would descend back to sea via a parachute for retrieval. Ingenious, really. Why hadn’t I volunteered for things like this in college? It made me regret my extracurricular activities of either working in the cafeteria or rehearsing with my 80s metal band. I also wrote lots of bad poetry. But then I also did plenty of fly fishing and camping along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior, which I don’t regret, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Next came the eclipse. We watched through the veil of drifting clouds as the moon slipped in front of the sun. I wasn’t expecting much, and indeed the sight was underwhelming. A crescent began to form, much less impressive than a waxing or waning moon and a star-studded night sky.
But then totality happened. We pulled off our glasses as day turned to night. The corona was evident even through the patchy clouds. There was an eerie chill and a sudden stillness on the sea. The students cheered. There were oohs and ahhs, and it was wonderful, in this age of modern marvels and mind-bending technology, to be able to stare in wonder at so ancient a phenomenon. And to be out to sea to share the sight with this beleaguered and weary group of travelers, short on sleep and tired of bouncing across the swells yet suddenly thrilled by the passing of our moon in front of the sun. To be light and then dark and then light again became a thrill that is hard to describe, so I’ll stop trying.
And now for the spoiler. The balloon…it didn’t reach its apex. And we weren’t able to retrieve it. The system suddenly began to descend. Students tracked its location via satellite, but once it lowered to three thousand feet they lost the signal. They valiantly used mathematic formulae to calculate its direction and speed of descent to try and discern its landing point, but after several hours of motoring along the path and scanning the sea they decided to call off the search and head to port, hoping that the system would wash ashore or a fishing boat might find it.
Experiments fail, and I think that’s a good thing. In some ways its better than when they succeed. You can insert any inspirational quote here about the path to success being paved with failures. Clichés all but also true. I think of my first film and my first unpublished novel and I’m actually quite happy that more people didn’t see them. I learned a lot, but they weren’t ready for prime time. The students seemed to take the loss of the balloon in stride. It was clear they gave their best efforts, though the return trip was more somber than it might have otherwise been.
The sight of the eclipse, and the surge of the swells, reminded me of the raw, uncontrollable forces of nature. I’d been on that ship a number of times over the years and seen various successes and failures by both students and expert researchers who are in the top of their fields. No amount of expertise can control the raw power of the natural world. Failures remind us of that.
But I was also reminded of another experiment, one in which we are all participating. There are plenty of people who deny the climate is warming and changing and that the ocean is becoming more acidic. We are pumping a crazy amount of carbon into the atmosphere in our hunger for fossil fuels. And I doubt any of those in denial over the human causes of climate change and its threat to the future of this planet and the humans and other species that live on it have ever been on a research vessel or spoken directly with students or faculty who study these things.
That we’re pumping enormous quantities of C02 into the air and that it winds up in the ocean is undeniable. We’re heading into uncharted waters. It’s kind of like performing experimental surgery on ourselves. If we screw up the oceans and weather of this planet, nobody will escape the consequences.
I’ve seen first-hand the damage caused to coral reef habitats. I’ve seen retreating glaciers. I’ve seen the affects of changing ocean chemistry. It’s happening. The world knows it. And I think the Republicans even know it, deep in their hearts. But they’re more interested in sticking a big middle finger in the faces of their political opponents and the rest of the world than admitting that they’re wrong. For many people, delusional thinking is easier than contrition. There is no such thing as the principled denial of climate change.
As we returned to port after thirty hours at sea, I stumbled to my car without breaking news. I had no successful experiment to report on. I didn’t have headline-making images of the moon’s shadow racing toward the Oregon.
But I was impressed by the commitment of the team. None of them were paid to be there. They weren’t even receiving class credit. They were volunteers in a club. Their curiosity was boundless. If we are to have any hope for a successful solution to the climate crisis that is in full swing, and the threats this crisis is subjecting to our oceans’ health, then these kids will be the ones to come up with the answers.
When President Trump decided to be the lone holdout and pull our nation out of the Paris Agreements, I felt shame but not surprise. What do you expect from a guy like that? A party like that?
They called this the Great American Eclipse 2017, as if it is something we owned. But we don’t own the sun or the moon or the ocean. I was on a boat with the first Americans to see this phenomenon, bouncing on the waves, at the mercy of great forces. We don’t own any of it.
But we do have the power to break it. And to save it.
And being out on a research ship that morning, I can say I was with a few of the people on the side of the debate that has a shot at fixing it.