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Everything you need to know about solar eclipses

A person takes a photograph of the sun during totality as the moon passes between it and the earth resulting in a total solar eclipse, in Montreal, Monday, April 8, 2024. (Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press) A person takes a photograph of the sun during totality as the moon passes between it and the earth resulting in a total solar eclipse, in Montreal, Monday, April 8, 2024. (Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press)

Millions of people in Canada witnessed a rare total solar eclipse on April 8, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many. 

The eclipse moved over a large swath of North America and during the brief period when the moon totally covered the sun, day transformed to night with a show of streamers and magnetic loops dancing around the sun. streamed the eclipse live from multiple locations across Canada. Below is an account of everything that happened during the celestial event.

Here's everything you need to know about solar eclipses.

What is a total solar eclipse?

In a total solar eclipse, the moon passes between the sun and Earth, entirely covering the face of the sun along a small path of our planet's surface. This is called the "path of totality" and the daytime sky turns dark, akin to dusk or dawn.

In places along the path of totality, people will be able to view the sun's corona, the star's outer atmosphere, which typically is not visible because of solar brightness.

People gather to watch the total solar eclipse from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Monday, April 8, 2024. (Matt Rourke/ AP Photo)

What happens during a total solar eclipse?  

The moon will be in a direct line between the sun and the Earth, creating a dark, quickly moving shadow on the face of our planet. That particular type of shadow is called an umbra.

For those watching from within the moon's so-called path of totality, the sun's rays will be completely blocked, plunging the surrounding landscape into darkness for a short time.

Observers outside that path will see a partial eclipse, as the moon will block part of the sun, creating a lighter shadow known as a penumbra.

Be sure to watch for about an hour before and after totality to see the moon fully transit in front of the sun. It is only safe to remove eye protection in the brief period the sun is blocked. 

What does a solar eclipse look like?

Robert Cockcroft, assistant professor at the department of physics and astronomy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. described the experience of seeing a total solar eclipse in Nashville on Aug. 21, 2017.

He said it was more like a sunrise, or a sunset with colours all around the horizon, rather than being completely dark.

"You'll see like a little Pac-Man shape starting to appear as the moon progressively moves more and more in front of the sun. The sun will start to appear more and more crescent-like through your eclipse glasses," Cockcroft said in a video interview with "It will get so dark in the sky that you'll be able to see … Venus and Jupiter on either side of the sun and you'll be able to see some of the brightest stars in the sky."

How can I view the eclipse safely?

To avoid damaging your eyes, proper gear is essential. Glasses with special dark lenses certified for solar viewing with an ISO 12312-2 international standard are the simplest option and relatively inexpensive online, including from the Royal Astronomical Society of CanadaNASA and the American Astronomical Society also offer recommendations. Similar filters are also available for cameras and smartphones.

Solar eclipse glasses are shown in Montreal, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

If you can't get glasses, the Canadian Space Agency provides instructions for making a DIY solar eclipse projector) with little more than a cardboard box, paper, scissors, aluminum foil, a pin and tape. These act like pinhole cameras and will show you a small projection of the eclipse inside the box. Welding helmets with shade 12 or higher are also safe, according to NASA. No matter how dark, sunglasses just won't cut it.

Bill Archer, a mission specialist with the Canadian Space Agency, says there's also good reason to look down during a solar eclipse to watch shadows transform like thousands of pinhole cameras.

Do not look at the sun directly. NASA says the only safe time to directly view the sun is during the brief phase of totality when the moon fully covers it.

Sunscreen is also recommended to protect your skin since you will be exposed to the sun.

Are solar eclipses rare?

Solar eclipses appear once or twice every year somewhere on the planet, according to NASA. Most locations typically wait between 400 and 1,000 years for a repeat performance.

Nova Scotia, however, was visited by total solar eclipses in 1970 and again in 1972. And next month's eclipse will also track across the northern tip of Cape Breton.

Since 1963, Canadians have witnessed five total solar eclipses, though the one in 2008 tracked across the upper reaches of the Arctic.

When is the next solar eclipse after 2024?

The most recent total solar eclipse in Canada occurred in Aug. 2008, but was only visible in the country's far north. Before that, Canadians were last treated to a total solar eclipse in Feb. 1979, with Manitoba getting the most spectacular view. After this April, the next Canadian total solar eclipse will occur in Aug. 2044 over parts of Alberta, B.C. and the territories. Atlantic Canada will have its next chance in May 2079.  

An annular solar eclipse occurs when the moon is further away from earth and blocks less of the sun, leaving a larger fiery ring. A May 1994 annular solar eclipse was visible in Ontario and Nova Scotia. The next annular solar eclipse will occur over Canada in June 2048.

With files from The Canadian Press and Reuters Top Stories

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