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Science & the Public

Your solar eclipse experience can help science

A smartphone is all you need to collect data during the eclipse

photo illustration of an eclipse on a smartphone

SCIENCE SCREENTIME Anyone can conduct citizen science on the go during the Aug. 21 solar eclipse thanks to a handful of smartphone apps.

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With just weeks to go before the Great American Eclipse, scientists are finalizing years of planning to study the solar phenomenon. But it’s not too late to get involved.

“This is the first eclipse crossing over a major landmass in the era when lots of people have digital devices,” says astronomer Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley. The 120-kilometer-wide path of totality, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun, will streak through 12 states from coast-to-coast on August 21, and the entire country will see at least a partial eclipse. So if you’re interested in collecting data on this rare celestial spectacle, there’s an app for that. Several, in fact.

Observe eclipse weather

The GLOBE Program’s Observer app lets people to catalog changes in their local atmosphere that are affected by the amount of sunlight hitting Earth. Users can take pictures or enter descriptions of cloud cover, record temperatures and write in such observations as wind speed or air pressure if they have the equipment to make them.

“The eclipse allows us to see what happens when there’s a relatively abrupt drop in sunlight,” says Kristen Weaver of the GLOBE Observer program at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Even people who aren’t in the path of totality can contribute valuable data, Weaver says.

Students from kindergarten through high school will use the data in research projects through the GLOBE education program. And if enough people send in data, NASA researchers creating models of Earth’s energy budget — the balance between the energy our planet receives from the sun and sends back out into space — could also analyze the observations.

map of solar eclipse

See how plants and animals respond

Folks willing to take their eyes off the skies for a moment can record what plants and animals are doing around eclipse time using the California Academy of Sciences’ iNaturalist app.  

Past eclipse-watchers have told tales of animals exhibiting nighttime behavior — such as birds falling silent or squirrels retreating to their dens — when the moon blocks the sun. The iNaturalist app could allow the first extensive examination of this phenomenon, says the Academy’s Elise Ricard.

People can use the app to note the behavior of whatever animals are around, be they pets, livestock, wildlife or even zoo animals. Some flowers also close up at night, Ricard notes, so plant observations are also encouraged.

The data could help scientists understand the extent of eclipse necessary to elicit certain responses. For instance, someone in an area where the moon covers 85 percent of the sun might notice odd animal behavior that isn’t seen by anyone in areas with only 70 percent coverage of the sun.

Record the sounds of an eclipse

The sounds of nature can also change dramatically during an eclipse. Ricard remembers birds falling silent in the nearby jungle during an Australian eclipse. And Henry Winter, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., recalls a friend’s story of crickets starting to chirp during an eclipse.

To capture these shifting sounds, Winter launched the Eclipse Soundscapes project, which will collect recordings during the solar eclipse to provide an audio experience for the visually impaired.

Soundscapes’ reps will record at 12 national parks, and anyone with the app can add their own sound bites to the database. The app will also include a specially designed narration of what’s happening in the sky for visually impaired eclipse-goers.

Solar snapshots for science

For anyone in the path of totality, there’s also the chance to participate in the Eclipse MegaMovie project, the first crowdsourced image archive of a total solar eclipse.

Viewed from any single place on the ground in the path of totality, the moon completely covers the sun for only about 2½ minutes. But by gathering images from over 1,000 trained volunteers and from members of the public snapping pics with smartphones across the country, the MegaMovie project will capture the full 90-minute duration of the solar eclipse as it crosses the continental United States.

The project will give astronomers an unprecedented view of the outer layers of the sun’s atmosphere — which aren’t blocked by the moon — during the entire eclipse.

Like the data collected by all these apps, the Eclipse MegaMovie images will be publicly available online, where they can be accessed by amateur astronomers, too. “They might notice some interesting phenomenon before professional astronomers get around to looking at the data,” Filippenko says.

It’s certainly an exciting time to be a citizen scientist. But if you do decide to participate in data collection, don’t forget to take time to put down your phone and enjoy the majesty of the eclipse.

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