Eclipse Tips for Parents

The solar eclipse will be happening on Monday, August 21.  Here in Pittsburgh, it will start at 1:10pm, maximum eclipse will be at 2:35, and it will end at 3:55 (exact times may vary with your precise location).  We will not have a total eclipse here, at maximum eclipse about 84% of the sun’s diameter will be covered by the moon.  The sky may get darker than normal (though not as dark as at night), and the sun will resemble a crescent moon (but much brighter) at maximum eclipse.

Never look directly at the sun.  You can permanently damage your eyes.  You’ve probably heard this before.  Looking directly at the sun is not more dangerous during an eclipse.  However, on a normal day, there’s not much to see if you look directly at the sun, so anyone who does is likely to look away quickly.  During a partial eclipse, or the partial phases of a total eclipse, there is something interesting to see, so it’s more tempting to look directly at the sun.  The only time it is safe to look directly at the sun is during the total phase of a total eclipse.  This eclipse will not be total here in Pittsburgh.

If you want to look at the eclipsed sun, use eclipse glasses, which are NOT the same thing as sunglasses.  Sunglasses block about 50 to 90% of visible light from the sun, and may or may not block ultraviolet and infrared light.  Eclipse glasses block at least 99.99% of visible light from the sun, and block ultraviolet and infrared as well.  Sunglasses will not block enough light to make it safe to look directly at the sun.  If you can see anything through the glasses other than the sun, the glasses probably aren’t dark enough to safely look at the sun.  Use caution when moving around while wearing eclipse glasses.  You may not be able to see obstacles that you might trip over.  Never try to drive while wearing eclipse glasses.  A man was killed in Germany in 1999 when he tried to drive while wearing eclipse glasses.  You should not look at the sun without proper eclipse glasses while driving, of course.  I wouldn’t drive during the eclipse if I didn’t have to, since there is a possibility of other drivers being distracted by it.  Never walk on a road or in a parking lot while viewing the eclipse.  Make sure your children understand that basic traffic safety rules still apply during the eclipse.

If your child cannot be trusted to keep eclipse glasses on while looking at the partially eclipsed sun, do not let them go outside during the eclipse without supervision.  I personally wouldn’t trust most kids younger than 10 to do this without adult supervision.  They can do permanent and untreatable damage to their vision by looking at the partially eclipsed sun.  Talk to your child before the eclipse about the importance of not looking directly at the sun without proper eye protection.  If they will be at school during the eclipse, talk to their teacher or principal about it.  If they will be with another caregiver during the eclipse, talk to that person.  I have talked to the office at Beth Shalom ELC and told them that I don’t recommend that preschoolers should be outside without close supervision during the eclipse.

To choose a good location for eclipse viewing, see if the sun will be visible from there from between 1pm and 4pm.  There is no need to find a dark location without city lights, anywhere you get a good view of the sun will do.  Choose a location where you will not be in the way of foot or vehicle traffic, and where your children are not likely to wander into traffic.  Choose a location that is not near stairs or other tripping or falling hazards, since you may not be able to see those hazards when wearing eclipse glasses.  Remember, this will still be an August day.  It’s likely to be hot, and hopefully will be sunny (the temperature may drop briefly near maximum eclipse or totality).  Wear sunscreen and have drinking water available, as you would for any outdoor activities at this time of year.

Even an indoor location would work for eclipse viewing, if you have a view of the sun during the eclipse.  Looking at the sun through a glass window is as dangerous as looking at it outside.  You will still need eclipse glasses.

Do not attempt to make your own solar filter for eclipse viewing.  You may have heard of ways to improvise an eclipse filter.  This isn’t a good idea.  Amazon sells ISO certified eclipse glasses in 10-packs for less than $20 (as of 7/27/2017, costs may go up as the eclipse approaches).  It is possible for a material to block enough visible light to allow you to look at the sun comfortably, but still transmit enough ultraviolet or infrared light to damage your eyes.  The retina does not have nerves that transmit pain (ask anyone who has suffered a detached retina), so a lack of pain isn’t a reliable indicator that your retina is not being damaged.  An improvised solar filter may not be as durable as a properly manufactured solar filter.  It may get damaged while you are looking at the sun, leaving you vulnerable to eye damage.  This is a major problem with smoked glass.  Pop-Tart wrappers, Mylar balloons, Mylar blankets, and other things like that are not safe and reliable solar filters.  If you can get ISO certified eclipse glasses for less than $2 each, delivered to your door, there’s really not a good reason to take risks with improvised solar filters.  If you do buy eclipse glasses from Amazon, check that they are ISO certified.  I bought Soluna eclipse glasses (from Amazon), which are made by American Paper Optics and are ISO certified.  NASA has said that glasses made by American Paper Optics are safe for eclipse viewing.  If you buy eclipse glasses from Amazon or another source, make sure they are ISO certified for solar viewing.  Don’t use eclipse glasses that are more than three years old or that have any obvious damage around the eyes.

Don’t look at the eclipsed sun through binoculars or a telescope, unless it has a proper solar filter.  Solar filters on the eyepiece of binoculars or telescopes are not safe.  A proper solar filter covers the objective (the big end, not the end where you look in) of a telescope or a pair of binoculars.  Don’t look into the eyepiece of an unfiltered telescope or binoculars, even if you are wearing eclipse glasses.  Eclipse glasses are intended to be used by themselves or with eyeglasses, not with binoculars or telescopes.  It’s also possible that pointing a telescope or binoculars at the sun without a solar filter could damage the telescope or binoculars or set something on fire (think about setting things on fire with a magnifying glass in the sun).  It’s generally not a good idea to use a telescope or binoculars to look at the sun unless you know what you are doing and observe proper safety precautions.

This document was written by Linda Lee Newman, mother of Maya and Zev.  I have an MS in astronomy from UC Santa Cruz.  This is my fourth eclipse.  I’ve seen a partial eclipse from Maryland in 1994, a partial eclipse from California in 2002, and a total eclipse from China in 2009, as well as the transit of Mercury in 1999.  I will be in Nashville, Tennessee on the day of the eclipse, hoping to see totality.

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