I have on occasion poked fun at meteorologists for making a career out of being incorrect more often than not, like a ball player’s hitting chances but with more riding on it, but perhaps the jokes aren’t as deserved as they used to be. Nate Silver makes the claim in his book The Signal and the Noise that the science of weather has become much more accurate as of late. When a forecast includes a thirty percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms, the numbers apparently bear that out: ten days under similar conditions will in fact produce close to three afternoons of rain.
Accurate or not, Monday morning led to thousands of people analyzing weather data like never before in preparation for the Great American total eclipse. I checked and rechecked the forecasts late Sunday, early Monday and again en route to determine our final destination. Initially I was ready to drive to southern Illinois, but the updated forecast read:
Carbondale, IL: 12PM – Partly sunny, 1PM – Cloudy, 2PM – Cloudy, then afternoon showers
Fulton, MO: 12PM – Partly sunny, 1PM – Partly sunny, 2PM – Partly sunny, then afternoon showers
Partly sunny trumped cloudy, so I along with my son and two of his friends drove the extra distance to Kingdom City, Missouri on Highway 54 and set up shop next to the Pick-A-Dilly Quick Stop along with hundreds of other eager viewers. It was a perfect location, including shade to picnic in, access to a relatively clean bathroom and $1 Diet Cokes to boot. We looked upward with our eclipse glasses through thin, hazy clouds to see the eclipse begin, and for the moment it looked like the weather forecast was spot on.
Then the weather went from mostly sunny with hazy cloud cover to mostly cloudy to downright cloudy and back again, the sun alternating between clearly visible to clearly not. Not a terrible situation, but it was still an hour away from the total eclipse, and the crowd started getting restless. I made conversation with a man from Wisconsin who had commented on my UW hat, and before driving down from Port Washington he’d narrowed his trip to three possible locations: Carbondale, IL, central Missouri or southeastern Nebraska. Somehow we ended up in the exact same location, and the thickening cloud cover caused him to consider relocating and driving one or two exits east on highway 70 where it looked like the skies might be a bit clearer. The problem was, would there be a place to park and view the eclipse? Would there be the same splendid access to a bathroom? And would the skies really be any better?
We both conferred with our respective clans and decided to stick it out, wishing the eclipse would hurry up as the clouds to the west grew thicker and thicker.
1:05 came around, and it looked like the total eclipse was imminent. As clouds slipped away to give us a better view people verbally cheered on the moon as if it were running at a track meet. “Come on! You can do it!” Cicadas started singing in the tall trees behind us. At 1:10 there was such as slight sliver of sun that it couldn’t possible wait any longer to slip behind the moon, but still we waited to an ever-dimming atmosphere that resembled dusk but with lighting that appeared artificial, unnatural, like a giant film set.
And at 1:13 as the moon overtook the last hint of sun, the clouds that had intermittently blocked our view and caused anxiety for the previous hour disappeared. People oohed and aahed. Camera shutters opened and closed. Taco Bell’s lights across the street turned on. And when it was over, the congregation of sky-watchers clapped. I high-fived my son and his friends.
One of his friends said, “That was amazing.”
I was relieved, not only for having chosen a spot that brought our journey to fruition, but that the teenagers with me were impressed by something that nature created. After all that their young eyes have seen in their short lifetimes, I wasn’t sure the sun and the moon would live up to the hype.
Fifteen minutes after the total eclipse ended, it started to rain.
Chalk one up for the meteorologists.