Doctors of optometry on how to enjoy Oct. 14 eclipse in a safe way
As a preteen growing up in the 1970s, Karl Citek, O.D., M.S., Ph.D., recollects making a pinhole camera out of a small cardboard box in order to view a partial eclipse over New York City.
“I don't remember exactly what year it occurred,” Dr. Citek says now. “But I know that even then we were warned not to look directly at it. Eclipse glasses were not readily available then as they are today. The experience, and the moon landings at the time, cemented my desire to learn more about space, the (NASA) space program and science in general!”
The first eclipse that Tyson Brunstetter, O.D., Ph.D., MBA, remembers took place in the mid-1980s. He was about 12 years old.
“We had talked about the eclipse at school for weeks beforehand, and I was extremely excited to see it,” says Dr. Brunstetter, who is now an aerospace optometrist at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “But I didn’t have any eclipse glasses. Easy solution: I built a simple pinhole projector to view the eclipse indirectly, and it worked perfectly. This was one of my first introductions to the science of optics, and I guess I’ve been hooked ever since. I think I was as impressed with the pinhole viewer as I was with the solar eclipse.”
Some things don’t change—one, both doctors of optometry still appreciate the celestial event and, two, they heed the warnings about not staring directly at an eclipse. But now Drs. Citek and Brunstetter are the ones giving the sage advice on watching eclipses.
On Oct. 14, an annular solar eclipse will occur when the Moon passes between the Sun and Earth while it is at its farthest point from Earth. Because the Moon is farther away from Earth, it appears smaller than the Sun and does not completely cover the star—creating a “ring of fire” effect. The eclipse will be visible across the North, Central and South Americas. In the U.S., its path of annularity (about 125 miles wide including 6.6 million people, according to Dr. Citek) will be from the coast of Oregon to the Texas Gulf Coast. (Mark your calendars for April 8, 2024, for a total solar eclipse.)
View the eclipse safely
The eclipse may be free but there could be a price to pay—if eclipse watchers don’t take the proper precautions to see the show in the sky safely.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love the experience of a solar eclipse,” Dr. Brunstetter says. “But simple safety precautions need to be followed to protect our fragile retinas during the event. This is especially true for children who might be tempted to stare at the eclipse with an unprotected eye. The eye’s optical components are designed to capture visible light, to greatly condense it and to focus it directly on the retina; this initiates the process that we call ‘vision.’ But when extreme light levels—like those coming directly from the sun—pass through the eye, the highly-focused beam has the potential to burn the retina and induce an area of permanent vision loss.”
Dr. Citek agrees. Wearing eye protection is “common sense,” he says. And what happens if you don’t?
“After a few seconds, there will be an afterimage, like when looking directly at a camera flash, which can last for many minutes afterward,” Dr. Citek says. “After a few minutes, there will be solar retinopathy, in which the sun's rays that are focused on the retina (usually in the macula) actually causes permanent damage and thus blindness on that part of the retina. Someone with even mild solar retinopathy can then have best corrected vision of no better than about 20/40—worse in more serious cases. Looking at the sun on the horizon at sunrise or sunset without special protection is fine; an eclipse is not the same thing, even if it seems that light level might be the same or less."
Here are some tips from the AOA for safely viewing the annular eclipse:
Get the proper eye wear: “We tell patients they’ve got to use the proper eye filters—the ISO-designated, certified eclipse glasses (ISO12312-2),” says Dr. Citek who presented on the subject of safely viewing the upcoming eclipse at Pacific University College of Optometry in Oregon where he is a professor of optometry.
Technique of the pros. Before looking up at the eclipse, stand still and cover your eyes with your eclipse glasses or solar viewer. After viewing, turn away and then remove your glasses or viewer—do not remove your viewing glasses while looking at the Sun. If you normally wear glasses, wear your eclipse glasses over them.
Be aware of harmful solar exposure: There is no substitute for the proper eye wear—not sunglasses, telescopes or binoculars unless they are fitted with the proper solar filter on the front (objective) lens, Dr. Citek warns. Staring at the sun without protection can result in damage to the retina (solar retinopathy).
Visit your doctor of optometry. Check in with your doctor of optometry for information about safely viewing the eclipse. If you experience any problems with your eyes or vision after the eclipse, your optometrist will be able to provide you with the medical care you need. To find a doctor of optometry near you, visit the AOA's doctor locator. Symptoms of potential damage to the eyes include loss of central vision, distorted vision and altered color vision.
“You might be outside for hours, so make sure to apply sunscreen and wear a hat,” he says.
Seeing an eclipse is cool but also educational. In 2017, NASA collected data from nearly a dozen studies on a total solar eclipse.
“I’m not directly involved in NASA’s solar eclipse research, but I’ve always been interested in NASA efforts of any flavor,” Dr. Brunstetter says. “It turns out that total solar eclipses provide an excellent opportunity for scientists to study the faint, outermost portion of the Sun’s atmosphere, the corona. The corona usually isn’t visible unless the Sun’s intense light is blocked. That sounds like a great excuse to view a solar eclipse.”
Resources for practices
View AOA members-only resources for educating the public on how to see the eclipse safely, including an infographic on safety tips for viewing the eclipse, a sample email or newsletter, sample press release, media posts and social graphics (both animated and static images).
For more information, visit the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) website. To download fact sheets from the AAS, click here. For the Spanish version, click here.
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