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Coasts in Shadow: Beneath the Waves during the Great American Solar Eclipse 2017

By Kasey R. Jacobs, Communications Chair, The Coastal Society. This article is also published on Marine Science Today as part of a TCS-MST Collaboration

Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs
Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs

 

Minutes before any eclipse observer can see the moon commandeer the light of the Sun on August 21st, the Pacific Ocean will perceive the changes first.

A serendipitous event for Jonathan Fram and the array of scientific sensors he manages off the coast of Oregon. Though not designed nor deployed for measuring how the Great American Solar Eclipse affects the ocean, Associate Professor Fram, of Oregon State University, is taking advantage of their location in the path of totality. And he is not the only one. Physical scientists on the coasts of Oregon and South Carolina are gearing up to deploy data-collecting instruments, anglers are scouting for the best fishing spots, universities are looking to draw people into the joy of science, and coastal managers are preparing for the inundation of people in parks and conservation areas.

Most eclipse observers are thinking about the bizarre occurrences they might witness on land and in the sky, and not what they can expect on the coasts and in the ocean. As the entire nation looks up to the heavens and around the land on August 21st, what will be happening off the coasts?

History of ocean-focused eclipse studies

Scientists and eclipse observers for centuries have eagerly observed land-based effects, at least as far back as a total eclipse in 1544, but very few have asked the coastal question. Surprisingly, the published literature remains meager today.

The Boston Society of Natural History conducted an extensive observation project to document the behavior of wild and domestic animals during the 1932 New England total solar eclipse, including coastal and marine wildlife. Their eclipse, like ours, took place in the month of August. In today’s terminology, we would call their survey a large-scale “citizen science” project.  The Society partnered with media outlets to publish announcements prior to the eclipse to elicit observations for the survey. The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and Traveler, The Boston Transcript, The Boston Post, The Boston American, and the Christian Science Monitor all gave important space, often on the front page, and mentioned the study in radio broadcasts. They combined these citizen observations with official reports by game wardens in the northeastern states, and reports submitted by naturalists. They mapped the observations and a special eclipse committee analyzed all 498 data points and published their findings in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Science of 1935.

The 1932 Eclipse Committee found that harbor seals were unaffected by the eclipse while wild fish were more active. Wild brook trout, white perch, and small-mouthed black bass were eating more during the eclipse and stopped when the light returned. A Mr. H. Bowley in Massachusetts reported that Common Pickerel “always jump out of the water in this part of the river at dark, began jumping out during the darkness of the eclipse.”

Shore birds, like fish hawks, lesser yellow-legs, gulls, terns, willets, and roseate terns may act differently than land birds during an eclipse. Rather than go quiet or roost, they become more active, vocal, and exposed, as is the case for other nocturnal birds. Solar eclipses tend to cause diurnal (day-time) birds to go quiet and nocturnal (night-time) birds to emerge. The committee noted that gulls showed less reaction than the terns and most other shore birds, as some did respond as though night was coming by returning to the mainland to roost. They stressed that reactions appear individual and not species-specific.

In the latter part of the 20th century, scientific instruments began to be used in coastal eclipse studies. A deep scattering layer in the North Atlantic was monitored during the 1972 total solar eclipse using an echo recorder. In 2006, an oceanographic cruise on board a Hellenic Center for Marine Research ship measured, and later modeled, effects on marine zooplankton during a total solar eclipse in the Eastern Mediterranean. The research team found underwater profiles of temperature and salinity remained almost constant yet most zooplankton reacted similarly to the changes in light.  Different species responded at different rates and intensities.  Ciliates responded to the decreased light intensity by adopting night-time behavior, spreading themselves vertically within the water column. Some copepodites showed a vertical migratory movement while others displayed no significant differences.  Previous studies showed the free-swimming larvae of shrimp, clams, snails and barnacles vertically redistribute themselves and/or migrate upwards during total solar eclipses.

Fishermen prepare

As these planktonic crustacea swim to the surface, it would follow that the marine life that feast on them also rise. The night-time behavior of fishes and marine mammals during solar eclipse events could be due to the movement of their food sources or triggered by the decreased light. Not enough research is available on the subject to make this determination. Measuring rapid changes in a short amount of time in the ocean water column simultaneously with changes in animal distributions is no small undertaking.

Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs
Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs

Fishermen have a propensity to already know about phenomena scientists stumble upon to study. In their renowned nonchalant manner, it seems they are already aware the fish will be biting on August 21st.  For over a month, recreational fishermen have been sharing with one another the best fishing spots in the path of totality. Anglers are hoping to fish night-time species during the day. Though the Sportsman Channel reports some fishermen think there won’t be any effect being the change is so brief.

Anglers in partial eclipse areas shouldn’t be discouraged at the missed opportunity. In 1906, in a letter to the editor of Nature, an A. Mosely wrote about the partial eclipse of August 30, 1905 seen in England. “All the morning the sport had been indifferent, but as the eclipse neared its maximum the fish suddenly became ravenous, and I took more in that hour than all the rest of the day. My experience was also that of all the other boats out there at the time.”

There is still little information on deep-sea or coastal fishing as most of the fish-spot-sharing online has been focused on rivers and freshwater species.

Gary Lewis, host of Frontier Unlimited TV and book author, wrote in an article on The Register-Guard, “When the light goes down and the caddis pop, the fish, like the rest of us, will be looking to the sky.”

“From physics to fish.” Ocean observation during eclipse

Jonathan Fram is hoping the massive network of sensors on oceanographic moorings he helps manage, called the Endurance Array, will be able to collect data useful for fisheries and other ocean subjects. The array is operated by Oregon State University and the University of Washington for the Ocean Observatories Initiative.  Bioacoustic sonars will measure fish and their prey, zooplankton, while other sensors, like gliders and profilers, will detect how the eclipse affects light and temperature at the sea surface. Fram tells The Coastal Society it can “measure everything from physics to fish.” These sensors are part of a twenty-five-year NSF-funded project that became operational in 2015. The array can monitor parameters at depths inaccessible to satellites, like oxygen, water velocity, and chlorophyll. Associate Professor Fram’s job is to keep the non-cabled infrastructure functioning, refurbishing and calibrating the sensors, and ensuring the data stream is continuous and available to any interested researchers, free of charge.

The array’s engineer will present two lectures on the capabilities of the array for observing eclipse effects during a three-day eclipse celebration by Oregon State University. His goal is to make sure researchers know about the array, the partnerships that make it function, and the existence of the data. He doesn’t analyze the data himself, but points researchers or collaborative teams to the data so they can make discoveries and write papers to further science. (Eclipse-related data can be found on a special eclipse webpage of the Endurance Array.)

Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs
Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs

Fram’s excitement over the possibility of collecting ocean data on the eclipse began twenty-six years ago when he traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii and was wowed by the 1991 solar eclipse. When he found out the Endurance Array was in the path of totality for the 2017 eclipse he started thinking about what instruments could capture the effects. The instruments today are sensitive enough to observe reactions not previously documented in past solar eclipses.

The instruments measure three different frequencies and can distinguish between different size classes of fish. If fish follow the zooplankton upwards and begin feeding as though it was night the sensors will be able to perceive this behavior. If a whale passes through the array, “we can see that as well.” The array has great potential for use in fisheries research. Instruments normally mounted on the bottoms of ships are now moored in place with cables in the portion managed by the University of Washington. The extra power allows for long-term monitoring not previously attainable.

The next closest thing

While the Endurance Array collects Pacific Ocean data during the eclipse, Dr. Cassandra Runyon, Planetary Geologist with the College of Charleston, will be observing the moon’s shadow as it crosses South Carolina from 80,000 to 100,000 feet. Dr. Runyon is leading a team of six students from the College of Charleston to conduct a high-altitude balloon flight, sending live video and images from near-space to the NASA website. This will be the first time she has remotely sensed a total solar eclipse. Her launch is part of a network of launches being conducted across the country in the path of totality.

Graphic: NASA
Graphic: NASA

A team of students from Oregon State University and Linn-Benton Community College will also be launching a balloon. Their flight will take place 30 miles offshore from onboard OSU’s research vessel Pacific Storm. For NASA, these coordinated balloon flights are also a first. Live coverage has never been done, nor has live footage been recorded across a continental network.

Motivating the College of Charleston’s Dr. Runyon to participate is “In short…curiosity” and the fact that she is not able to witness the eclipse from the International Space Station. “This is the next closest thing for me.”

The tides during the total solar eclipse

Dr. Runyon told The Coastal Society that the eclipse is not expected to affect the geomorphology of the coasts. However, there will be coastal flooding as the eclipse falls on a King Tide day in South Carolina.  King Tides are exceptionally high tides that occur naturally and are predicted beforehand. Twice a month, during new and full moons, the moon, earth, and sun are aligned and the gravitational pull of the sun adds to that of the moon causing the ocean to bulge a bit more than usual. This means that high tides are higher than normal and low tides are lower than normal. For coastal areas in the path of totality this means that these bimonthly Spring Tides will be at their maximum Sunday, August 20th, and Monday, August 21st. The solar eclipse may cause the King Tide intensity to be “slightly higher, but not significant,” according to Dr. Runyon.

In 1932, the Boston Society of Natural History emphasized how the tides affect shorebird behavior during a total solar eclipse. When making observations of abnormal eclipse behaviors in wildlife you first need to know what is their normal behavior. For coastal organisms, this means an observer also should know what their non-eclipse behaviors are during low and high tides.  In 1932, for instance, some gulls were observed to return to the mainland to roost, while others flew to feeding grounds exposed by the receding tide. Was this unusual behavior? During the eclipse the tide was falling and so some gulls decided to feed rather than return to their roosting areas because of the quick onset of darkness.

Inundated by eclipse observers in Oregon and South Carolina

The coasts of South Carolina will be inundated not only with water during the eclipse, but also eclipse chasers. Millions of people will flock to the coasts of Oregon and South Carolina on August 21st, 2017 to witness the first time in the nation’s history a total solar eclipse with a path falling entirely above the continental United States. The coverage has been intense and the enthusiasm is skyrocketing.

Universities are capitalizing on the excitement by organizing educational events and watch parties. The motivation is to enhance the public’s science literacy and showcase the capabilities of university researchers and labs. The College of Charleston will be hosting NASA’s national eclipse broadcasting. These university activities have been in the works for a while. “Members of the Oregon State University NASA Space Grant team, Astronomy Club, and other interested faculty and staff began planning for an OSU eclipse event” well over a year ago, according to Jill Peters, Eclipse Event Manager for the University Relations and Marketing department of Oregon State University. “This is like a dream come true for the scientists, engineers and astronomers on our Corvallis campus and [Hatfield Marine Science Center in] Newport to be directly in the path of a total solar eclipse.”

Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs
Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs

For coastal managers, the eclipse might be bittersweet. Managing the large influx of people is proving to be a challenge for both emergency management, traffic control, and conservation.

Margaret Allen, a member of The Coastal Society, reports that Charleston developed an emergency safety plan and South Carolina emergency officials issued a warning about crazy heavy traffic. “I guess they are worried that people will be driving and not paying attention and wreck. They’re saying locals should do their best to stay off the roads (which makes me prefer to stay at my local pool club). They expect upwards of 1 million out of state folks to come to SC!”

The high tides are one of the big concerns for government officials. “We’re going to have visitors who have no idea what our waters are like or even, as crazy as it sounds, that we have tides,” said Jim Kusz, North Lincoln Fire & Rescue spokesman told the Oregonian/Oregon Live. “We’re probably going to do a sweep the evening before and tell people if you are planning on being on the beach that night you might want to consider being higher up or off the beach completely.”

Oregon State Parks and Recreation warns in an official statement that the new moon on August 21st will bring very high and very low tides. Not sugarcoating the dangers, they continue: “A very low tide exposes a lot of beach, which is deceptively dangerous when the high tide rolls in. This will happen late on the night of Aug. 20 into the early morning of Aug. 21. Don’t camp on the beach because the high tide of more than 9 feet will cover most of the normally dry sand. The best scenario is that you and your sleeping bag will get wet. The other scenarios are far worse.”

Eclipse observer safety is not the only safety concern during total solar eclipses. In 2012, visitors from around the world headed to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park around Cairns, Australia to view the total solar eclipse. Because many islands offshore of Cairns were predicted to be the best locations to view the event there were concerns about disturbance to nesting seabirds. At the time, the Marine Park Authority Director John Day said it was “important visitors were aware of the environment around them when making the most of the rare opportunity”. For the 2017 eclipse, TravelOregon.com asks observers to “keep Oregon safe and beautiful” and provides tips for how to be a good steward while watching the eclipse.

Oregon State Parks and Recreation told The Coastal Society they are warning observers not to climb or dig into cliffs, to comply with posted signs and officials/volunteers, and to protect rocky shore habitats and sensitive wildlife areas. There are sensitive coastal habitat areas (marine reserves, rocky intertidal areas, bird nesting areas) within the path of totality. “It is important to not harass wildlife and be a good steward while enjoying these special places. The general message is to be safe – the Oregon coast is beautiful but can be dangerous if you’re not paying attention. Especially with large crowds, it is important to be aware of your surroundings, be prepared, and be a good steward.”

Jonathan Fram, and his oceanographic array that will observe the eclipse first before the rest of the nation, welcomes the masses. He reminds us that the eclipse is about experiencing the world around us.  “I am looking forward to thousands of people coming to Corvallis and millions of people coming to the whole path of eclipse that are excited about science because of the eclipse. The people coming to Corvallis and our whole weekend of events will be exposed to not just eclipse-related stuff but all the neat science done here. Places all across the country are doing the same types of events are great opportunities to engage people in science.”

For those coastal enthusiasts who want to observe and report on bizarre occurrences of coastal and marine wildlife on August 21, 2017 the California Academy of Sciences is taking a page from the book of the Boston Society of Natural History’s 1932 Eclipse Committee. They are soliciting citizen scientists to record their observations of any animals they see using the academy’s iNaturalist app.

Perhaps scientific and citizen observations recorded during the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 will solve the mystery of how solar eclipses affect our coasts and oceans.

 

~Meg Reed contributed to the reporting and editing for this story.

 

Night Dive looking up at water column. Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs
Night dive looking up at water column and bubbles with a dive torch. Photo Credit: Kasey R. Jacobs

Sources 

M. Allen, personal communication, August 10, 2017

Economou, G., E.D. Christou, A. Giannakourou, E. Gerasopoulos, D. Georgopoulos, V. Kotoulas, D. Lyra, N. Tsakalis, M. Tzortziou, P. Vahamidis, E. Papathanassiou, and A. Karamanos. 2008. Eclipse effects on field crops and marine zooplankton: the 29 March 2006 total solar eclipse. Atmos. Chem. Phys.

J. Fram (Oregon State University), personal communication, August 10, 2017

J. Peters (Oregon State University), personal communication, August 9, 2017

M. Robertson (College of Charleston), personal communication, August 9, 2017

C. Runyon (College of Charleston), personal communication, August 9, 2017

Oregon State Parks and Recreation, personal communication (by Meg Reed), August 15, 2017

Wheeler, W.M., C.V. MacCoy, L. Griscom, G. M. Allen, and H.J. Coolidge Jr. 1935. Observations on the Behavior of Animals during the Total Solar Eclipse of August 31, 1932. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Vol. 70, No. 2 (Mar., 1935), pp. 33-70

 

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