July 18, 2017

Smoky British Columbia and Will Wildfire Smoke Affect Eclipse Viewing?

After a recent bout of lightning, a number of major fires were initiated over British Columbia.  As shown by the NASA MODIS satellite imagery over the past three days (see below), the smoke plume have been impressive.

Wildfire/smoke season has begun over the Pacific Northwest, with most of the smoke so far heading eastward.

But the question of many is whether smoke will be a factor during the August 21st eclipse.   There is a lot of talk of folks converging around Madras, Oregon, east of the Cascade crest, but is there a downside to that location: smoke?

To get some insight into this question, here is the climatological probability of a significant wildfire s created by the NOAA/NWS storm prediction center.  A fairly significant chance (10-20%) for a wildfire being around on August 21st around NE Oregon, including the Madras area.

And to illustrate the threat, here is a MODIS image for August 22, 2015, showing a wildfire that spread smoke over the area.

Now smoke will not take out the sun, but it could seriously degrade viewing of the corona and solar prominences.   The lack of rain of the past month is progressively ratcheting up the fire risk for later in the season.   Something to watch.

Announcement:  Atmospheric Sciences 101

I will be teaching Atmospheric Sciences 101 this fall if anyone is interested either as a UW student or the Access Program for those over 60.  This is a general intro to weather and weather prediction.  MTWTh 10:30-11:20, Kane Hall.


  1. Oh boy.. what's the forecast for traffic driving down to Madras on the 21st?

  2. At the 2003 Oregon Star Party we watched the Mars super opposition through a vail of smoke. Nearly all else in the sky was obscured but Mars was still amazing to see. If Mars can get through the smoke, the solar corona certainly will - but the 'perfect' photographic image could well be tarnished. Still worth seeing in any case, though travel logistics in east/central Oregon could prove challenging.

  3. Cliff Mass said, "I will be teaching Atmospheric Sciences 101 this fall if anyone is interested either as a UW student or the Access Program for those over 60. This is a general intro to weather and weather prediction. MTWTh 10:30-11:20, Kane Hall."

    Is this class in person only or is there a way to view it on-line? I'm in Olympia so it would be difficult to get up there every day but I would love to take it.

  4. @John K - I suspect many people will be stuck in traffic at 10AM, miles away from the northern line of totality. I-5 South is going to be a crawl. If you want to go to the Madras area on the 21st, I would seriously consider going over Snoqualmie and Satus Passes and coming in the back way, rather than risk getting stuck in Portland.

    And it's far better to be there 2 hours too early, than 5 minutes too late.

  5. Local estimates here in Oregon put the estimated visitors to be over 2 million for the eclipse. That's in addition to the usual influx of visitors during the summer, so the chief concern is the possibility of more fires being initiated by tourists, coupled with the lack of added personnel and infrastructure available towards dealing with those additional fires. Given the current dry conditions and probability of increased dryness, with the added vegetation from the wet winter and spring...yikes.

  6. John K., I would expect the traffic on I-5 southbound in Clark County to start getting rough around 6 am. Volumes may increase to the point that traffic starts to bunch up from the Centralia 6 lane to 4 lane squeeze back towards Olympia.

    If I had to get to Madras and I didn't have lodging, first I would camp or boondock it. If that's not to your liking, then I would drive through the night. And if that isn't an option, I would take I-90 to I-82, then continue south on US 97 past Yakima. If reports came through that US 97 was jammed, I would take OR 207, US 395, or I-84 into the path of totality without being too picky about it.

    Hundreds of thousands of people will flock to Oregon for this event. You can't plan too carefully, because the Moon doesn't wait for the primate herd to assemble before putting on its show.

  7. Hi Cliff, UW PhD alum here. Are there any online versions of your ATMOS 101 course?

  8. Most are aiming to be right on the path of totality. However, 10 miles north or south of the centerline you still get an excellent eclipse and only lose 10 seconds worth of totality. You will remember the experience but you won't miss the lost 10 seconds. Plus if you leave immediately after the shadow bands disappear you may find yourself way ahead of the returning herd. This is going to be my strategy. Also, you get a better view of the edge of the moon's shadow in that spot.

    The edge is only 20 miles south of Portland. Some veteran eclipse watchers like to go close to the edge to watch the sudden flowering of the corona followed by everything in reverse. But then they have logged a lot of eclipse travel and have seen the 4-5 minute long totalities that are possible only near the equator.

    We will probably get in place to see the eclipse middle of the night before. I am hoping for somewhere in the Willamette Valley. So far the weather conditions this summer have been excellent most mornings. August is usually better than July even. I would rather avoid eastern Oregon and am worried that we could end up with a bad scenario similar to what happened in Portugal recently with people getting caught in wildfires unable to escape.

  9. With all the talk about 'safe viewing' of the eclipse, I have seen no definitive answer as to potential harm to self or camera if I use my phone camera to view/photograph the eclipse.

    I know that using a camera with a 'direct' viewfinder is not to be done (unless you have a special filter, and your viewfinder works through the lens). But no guidance from reputable sources about using a phone camera.

    What do your experts say, Mr. Mass?

  10. I'm here in Salem, Oregon and it's already super smokey down here.

    You can hardly see thru the clouds to see the sky. Only benefit? Maybe it will stay 5 - 10 degrees cooler today because of the smoke...

    As for the eclipse on the 21st of August?

    If you're spending any type of money to come to Oregon, just be prepared to be disappointed.

    Every time we have some sort of "sky show" here, there is almost always cloud coverage or rain. If that's not the case this year, now we'll likely be dealing with smoke...

    When was the last time 194,000 acres of fire was put out in less than 3 weeks? Unless we have rain, or the wind changes directions? We are all S.O.L.

    I've lived here long enough to know that it doesn't matter if it's mid-august and it's supposed to be sunny...Something will almost ALWAYS get in the way of viewing ish in the sky.

    Just FYI


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