Woleai (aerial image from Digital Globe)
Woleai is one of hundreds of small coral islands scattered like breadcrumbs across the South Pacific in the region known as Micronesia. The atoll, which is about the size of Golden Gate Park, has a thousand residents and, reportedly, two automobiles. There are, however, many boats—which is important, because the island’s only other access, a World War II-era airstrip, hasn’t been paved since 1992 and is currently closed down. Woleai has electrical power, but the Internet service is uncertain.
So it’s just the place to go, carrying tons of precision telescopes, HD video equipment, and satellite transmitters, to film the 2016 total solar eclipse.
Wait, what? Who decided this?
As the Exploratorium’s eclipse team sat down to plan this expedition, their first decision was: where do we go? The very nature of an eclipse limits the choice of location, because each eclipse follows a specific path across the globe as the shadow of the moon touches down. Only along this narrow band, the “path of totality,” can the total solar eclipse be seen. The 2016 eclipse path will begin in the Indian Ocean and travel east, hitting land on several Indonesian islands and then crossing open ocean to its finish northeast of Hawaii.
The path of totality for the March 2016 total solar eclipse.
Somewhere along that path was our spot. We considered Indonesia first; the islands of Sumatra, Borneo, and Sulawesi provide the major land masses intersecting the eclipse path. But along the path, eclipse viewing will be better in some places than others. Totality—the time when the sun is completely covered by the moon—can last anywhere from a few seconds to five minutes or so, depending on where you are. The longest duration of totality is found at the centerline of the eclipse path, near the middle of its length. The Indonesian islands, occurring early in the path, will provide limited viewing of totality—just 2–3 minutes. And when you’ve traveled thousands of miles to see an eclipse, you want every possible second of totality.
You also want a clear, unclouded view of the event, so weather is the next critical factor. For our eclipse expeditions, we check weather records of prospective sites to discover the likelihood of fog, rain, snow, or sandstorms. We look for an 85% or better chance of good weather. In Indonesia, March is the height of the monsoon season, and the chance of clear skies is a spirit-sagging 20% or less.
An eclipse partially obscured by clouds (Photo by NASA)
So we looked farther along the path, for small islands that might give us a better chance of a good eclipse experience, and we found Woleai. On the centerline of the eclipse path, near the middle, Woleai will see totality for 4 minutes, 3 seconds, nearly as good as you get for any eclipse. The island is flat, with the highest point a towering seven feet above sea level, so nothing will obscure the view. And while the weather report falls short of our usual cutoff, the skies are more likely to be clear over Woleai than anywhere else along the path.
But in choosing a location, physical and astronomical factors are joined by more human ones. Is there existing infrastructure allowing easy travel, food, and accommodations? Are there secure and certain connections to phone and Internet, along with electricity to power our technology? Are the local officials helpful and enthusiastic? Are other astronomers and eclipse-chasers likely to gather there, providing a concentration of expertise and added support?
Here, the case for Woleai stumbles. To get there, we’ll need to fly to Yap, the nearest island with a large airport, then load our two-plus-tons of equipment onto a chartered dive boat and set off for Woleai, 423 miles away. Three days later, we’ll arrive at the atoll. Because of the difficult access, few other eclipse watchers are likely to make the trip. We haven’t even scouted this location in person—although local officials have assured us that it’s worth trying to broadcast an eclipse from their island.
Still, we’ve chased eclipses to inaccessible spots before. Getting the best view trumps all, so we’re ready. We’ll bring our own power generators, and communications satellites to access the Internet. The dive boat will provide our meals and sleeping quarters. We’ll set up operations in the shade of a thatched hut near a white-coral beach, hang up our leis, and get ready to broadcast the eclipse from paradise.
A Woleai beach (Photo by Xavier M. Jubier)
For more eclipse information and to watch the live broadcast, visit our eclipse website.