Total solar eclipse is a cosmic marvel to be shared with loved ones — in keeping with Indigenous teachings

April 5, 2024 by Adina Bresge - U of T News

University of Toronto astrophysicist Laurie Rousseau-Nepton is brimming with anticipation for her first total solar eclipse. 

As eager as she is to witness the celestial spectacle on Monday, Rousseau-Nepton says she’s equally as excited to share in the communal awe of people coming together to marvel at the cosmos.

An assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, Rousseau-Nepton says she’s planning to experience the eclipse alongside a sea of spectators at Montreal’s Parc Jean-Drapeau.

“We’re all going to be there experiencing this — most of us for the first time, and maybe for the only time in our lives,” she says. “It will be so special not only for me, but for everybody that will be there.”

Rousseau-Nepton recently spoke to U of T News about this rare astrological alignment, the scientific opportunities it presents and Indigenous knowledge about eclipses.

What makes this eclipse special?

The upcoming eclipse on April 8th is a total solar eclipse that will be visible in the south part of the country close to major city centres. That means a lot of people will be able to see a total solar eclipse, which is extremely rare. It will probably take 100 years before we get to see another one.

We are very lucky on Earth. Our moon is just about the right size and distance to create this beautiful little display. When the moon is positioned between us and the sun, it will block out the light — and for a few minutes, it will be completely dark. We’ll see things that we never see normally: stars during the day, some planets as well, and the sun’s corona.

This eclipse is also happening close to the maximum of the sun cycle. The sun has a magnetic cycle that lasts about 11 years, and the maximum is expected to be in 2025. That means there’s going to be more sunspots, more solar eruption and people who are able to see auroras in the North will get to see some beautiful displays.

If we’re really lucky and there’s a solar eruption at the same time, we’ll be able to see features of the sun beyond the corona. It’s a little bit like winning the lottery. It might not happen, but it is possible.

What are some of the scientific opportunities this eclipse presents?

During totality, the moon will block the sunlight completely — you’ll still be able to see the moon, but it’ll look slightly different.

The light that will be visible on the surface of the moon is actually the light that first bounces on the Earth’s atmosphere, then goes back onto the moon and back to us. So that light is ultimately light from the Earth’s atmosphere glow. That’s something we can study by pointing instruments at the moon in that moment to get a glimpse of the Earth’s glow and measure it.

What does Indigenous Knowledge tell us about eclipses?

In the Innu community, we have this hero called Tshakapesh — he is known as the man on the moon. After a long life full of adventures, he ended up on the moon and that’s where he is now, looking at us. In one story, Tshakapesh was hunting and trapping when he felt like something was following him. He wanted to trap it, so he put a snare where the snow had melted on a very defined path. And the next morning, the sun got trapped into it. That story is closely related to a lunar eclipse of the sun, when the moon is slightly farther away from us, so we see a line of light around the sun during totality. That line of light represents the snare that Tshakapesh used to capture the sun. The story also involves animals that release the sun — and during the eclipse, we can see some constellations and stars that represent the spirits of those animals. 

Across Canada, in many Indigenous stories the eclipse is often a sign of peace. For the Haudenosaunee, the Great Law of Peace was signed by the Six Nations during a total solar eclipse nearly 1,000 years ago. The eclipse is also related to Grandmother Moon, the Skywoman that came down to Turtle Island. During the eclipse, Grandmother Moon meets with someone from her family, so it’s a special moment that they get to see each other for a few hours before leaving again for a long time. It’s seen as a great time for reunion, peace and spending time with your family.

What are your tips for viewing the eclipse?

First, we want to protect our eyes and the best way to do that is with solar eclipse glasses — and you want to be careful with which ones you buy to make sure they’re certified.

If you want to take photos of eclipse, you might be able to get good images during the moment of totality because the lack of sunlight will create a lot of contrast. But during the partial eclipse, the intense sunlight can cause significant glare that will make it hard to see all the details. A good trick is to put those solar eclipse glasses in front of the lens of your camera, which will dampen the amount of sunlight coming in so you can better capture the eclipse.

As for location, it might be nice to have some elevation because the eclipse generates a shadow that you can see from up high. If you really want to see the total eclipse, I would suggest to be mobile in a car, or any way you can move to another place if a cloud comes by. But ultimately, I would say the most important thing is to experience the eclipse with people you love. So, wherever you are, it’s fine.