Ontario ‘task force’ prepares Canadians for total solar eclipse — and beyond

Click to play video: 'Solar eclipse task force prepares for moment of truth ‘unlike any other’'
Solar eclipse task force prepares for moment of truth ‘unlike any other’
WATCH: With a name that sounds like it might have been borrowed from a science fiction universe, the Ontario Eclipse Task Force (OETF) has spent countless hours preparing for a rare event "unlike any other" that will last only approximately three-and-a-half minutes. Katherine Cheng has more – Apr 6, 2024

Anticipation is building for the total solar eclipse on Monday that astronomers are calling a “once-in-a-lifetime” event, which will plunge areas under the eclipse’s path into darkness.

For the past few months, cities along the totality’s path have been bracing for an influx of visitors, but one group in particular has been getting ready for this moment for the past several years — and the moment is finally here.

With a name that sounds like it might have been borrowed from a science fiction universe, the Ontario Eclipse Task Force (OETF) is made up of scientists, educators and other leaders in the field of astronomy who have met once a month for more than a year to prepare for an event that will last only approximately three-and-a-half minutes.

The solar eclipse’s path of totality will pass through some cities and towns in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Ata Mutahar / Global News

“It’s really an unreal experience,” described astrophysicist Dr. Ilana MacDonald of University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, who also chairs the OETF.

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Click to play video: 'Astronomers’ top tips for viewing the total solar eclipse'
Astronomers’ top tips for viewing the total solar eclipse

“The sky becomes very, very dark. So as dark as it would be just right after sunset… and then temperature will go down considerably. Animals and birds and insects will start to act like it’s nighttime.”

Though MacDonald has not experienced a total eclipse herself yet, she recalls the first partial eclipse that she encountered as a child in rural Quebec, when she was able to observe the tail end of an eclipse through a pinhole viewer made out of a shoe box with her father, after having been kept indoors at her school.

MacDonald describes being able to experience astronomical events like these first-hand, rather than from textbooks or class demonstrations, as core memories that sparked her lifelong curiosity and passion for astronomy and science.

“There’s more happening in the universe than just what we consider here on Earth,” MacDonald said. “I really like the idea of people all looking up at the sky together, and totality itself only happens for a couple of minutes. So you have all these people looking up at this one thing and, and being inspired and just in wonder of it.”

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Members of the Ontario Eclipse Task Force. Clockwise from top-left corner: Ilana MacDonald (University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute), Daliah Bibas (Ontario Science Centre); CJ Woodford (Discover the Universe); Jenna Hinds (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada). Katherine KY Cheng / Global News

2017 Eclipse: The Rehearsal

In 2017, a partial eclipse was visible across Canada, ranging from 89 per cent in Victoria, B.C., to 11 per cent in Resolute, Nunavut. For members of the OETF, the event hinted at the potential widespread interest of the upcoming total eclipse and helped spark the idea for province-wide coordination.

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“We want people to be ready to enjoy it safely. And we also really want to use it as an opportunity to inspire people to view this amazing natural phenomenon, as well as hopefully spur some interest in the fields of astronomy, physics and math as well,” said Victoria Kramkowski, who is a Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) member and Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) government and community relations specialist.

Kramkowski, who nearly skipped the 2017 eclipse during a busy work day, was able to finally view it during a break with borrowed eclipse glasses from co-workers, and it set her on the path of resuming her childhood love for astronomy.

“You got to watch the dance of our sun and the moon and these celestial bodies,” Kramkowski recalls. “It just made me feel so tiny in comparison. And it’s kind of an exciting feeling to sometimes put your ego in check and take the time to experience something so much bigger than yourself.”

Eclipse task force preparations

Leading up to the 2024 eclipse, the task force has been busy since its inception several years ago. Focused on helping municipalities and educational institutions prepare for the big event, their activities have ranged from distributing certified solar eclipse glasses to running workshops at libraries on how to properly use them.

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The group of around a dozen individuals were brought together by their shared passion for astronomy, and have been working quietly behind the scenes in hopes of passing on their mutual enthusiasm to others. In addition to public outreach and education, the task force also helped parks, municipalities and townships begin conversations early on for facilitating community travel and safety measures in anticipation of high volumes of visitors and traffic — at potentially record-breaking levels.

Daniella Morrone from Discover the Universe holds a workshop for teachers on the eclipse. Katherine KY Cheng / Global News

For those planning to travel to observe the eclipse, the task force recommends staying safe by keeping mobile and travelling at least a day beforehand and leaving a day afterwards if possible to avoid congestion and help ensure road safety. For those not travelling, members suggested taking a look at local timings and locations beforehand

They also emphasized the importance of having certified solar eclipse glasses and lens filters for cameras or binoculars to protect both your eyes and equipment sensors, and to ensure that they are not scratched or damaged that might allow leaked light to shine through.

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They also recommended practicing using them beforehand by running through the steps of putting them on and off, especially if kids are involved.

Lastly, the task force also all agreed on one thing: the importance of getting out there, having fun and living in the moment.

“We often talk about the difference between a ‘me eclipse’ and a ‘we eclipse,’” Kramkowski said. “Do you want it to be a little bit more quiet? More of an introspective moment, maybe with a few close friends or family members? Or do you want the energy of a big crowd of people experiencing this together?

“And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. And even from one eclipse to another, people might want to experience it in a different way.”

“I’d really encourage everybody to at least try to go out and see it. And even if you can’t get a hold of eclipse glasses to look at it, there are other ways to observe an eclipse,” Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) executive director Jenna Hinds said, suggesting alternatives such as observing eclipse shadows on the ground or using tools such as pinhole viewer contraptions.

There are many ways to experience an eclipse without directly viewing it, such as observing shadows or through a pinhole viewer. NASA

Moment of cloudy truth

Despite the years of preparation, one final question outside of the task force’s control remains: will there be cloud cover that obscures the eclipse’s visibility on the day of?

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Though not everyone may be able to pivot plans last minute based on the weather forecast leading up to the eclipse, Discover the Universe education coordinator CJ Woodford pointed out that that there are different kinds of cloudy weather that might still render the eclipse visible, and that the effects of the eclipse darkening skies and cooling the temperature will still be observably noticeable even with thick clouds.

Daliah Bibas, astronomy and space sciences researcher-programmer at the Ontario Science Centre (OSC), adds that even with clouds, activities such as art projects, museum outings or even reading about the eclipse can present a great learning opportunity and moment to reflect for kids and adults alike.

“That’s part of it, the uncertainty of weather. We might have cloud cover or not — and that’s kind of the beauty of what nature gives us,” Kramkowski said.

The eclipse — and beyond

The task force held their last meeting in March, which had the air of a final theatrical rehearsal before the curtain drops. Members had little to say in these final moments, other than crossing their fingers for clear skies and wishing each other “good luck.”

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As excitement reaches a crescendo, MacDonald and the other members of the task force hope that the knowledge gained from this eclipse will extend beyond April 8 – allowing not only those from the task force to apply the learned experience to other scientific educational opportunities, but that those inspired from the phenomenon will continue their curiosity as well.

“All of these are really big concepts and are almost too big to contain, for us conceptually as humans because we kind of operate on a smaller scale,” Woodford said. “And I tend to think just because there are things that are bigger than us, [it] doesn’t mean that we’re not important.

“So I think we need to do the best that we can for the planet we have and for the people that we have here. And so I would definitely say that I actually do subscribe to nihilism — but in a way, if nothing matters, then why don’t we do the best we can?”

Kids interact with an eclipse light display at the Ontario Science Centre. Katherine KY Cheng / Global News

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