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Anticipation builds ahead of April 8 solar eclipse

Next Monday a total solar eclipse will cover much of the state of Arkansas for 4 minutes and 27 seconds at it’s longest period.

Julia Kennefick is an physic professor at the University of Arkansas. When she began teaching astronomy here back in 2003, she said, she would often point out upcoming solar eclipses to her students.

“And you know, thinking, okay, that's 20 years away from now,” she said. “And I'm kind of amazed that, that 20 years is now.”

Next week the 2024 Great North American Solar Eclipse will chart its path across the continent traversing diagonally through much of the Natural State. It's a once in a lifetime event Kennefick said.

"[The moon] is 400 times smaller than our sun, but it happens to be 400 times closer,” she said. “And that means that they have pretty much the exact angular size in in our sky, so the same apparent size in our sky. Which means that on those occasions where they directly line up with each other, then the moon can exactly block the sun out."

And the celestial activity has been the subject of a lot of preparation and excitment for alomst anyone along that path of totality.

Susan West is an associate professor at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, where the Eclipse will be at one of its longest points of totality in the state. She also serves as the chair of the school's eclipse committee.

“Four minutes, 11 seconds in the middle of a Monday,” West said. “I mean, come on total darkness. I don't think everybody's ready for it.”

West said she first heard about the eclipse in February of 2020.

"We were at governor's conference on tourism in Fort Smith,” she said. “And Kim Williams, who works for Arkansas parks heritage and tourism shows up with an astronaut and was like did y'all know there's an eclipse coming and we were like, Oh my gosh, I was freaking out. We got so excited."

The university is offering packages for travelers to view the eclipse on their campus – renting out parking spaces in the range from 75 to 150 dollars. West said all of that money raised will go back to student organizations. She said the school has also been trying to capitalize on the educational aspects of the event with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA to bring officials to campus.

The coordinated effort at Arkansas Tech is just one of a dizzying number of events planned around the eclipse - from music festivals to merchandise and even a mass wedding ceremony, just to name a few.

The Arkansas department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism looked back at the 2017 eclipse on some other rural states – namely Nebraska and Wyoming where the combined economic impact tallied up to some $200 million dollars.

West said the economic benefit of this event isn't just tied to one day either - she sees it as more of a marketing event for future tourism.

"I want people to come here I want them to have a great experience with this unique thing,” West said. “But, I also want them to come back. It's a place where you go 45 minutes in a direction you can either be in a city or you can be in the middle of nowhere. I want everyone else to know how wonderful this state is."

The projected number of tourists coming to Arkansas is anywhere between 300,000 and one million people, according to estimates from state government officials.

AJ Gary is the director of the state's Division of Emergency Management, which put together an emergency plan for the event.

"I think what will be really beneficial to our citizens is,” he said. “Is that awareness that there's going to be a large number of visitors, a large number of people coming in to that area of the state. So traffic is going to be a little bit more congested."

The division released an online tool in March to give travelers information about eclipse events and local health and emergency services.

To mitigate traffic, the department of transportation is suspending planned construction along major roads from April 5 through the 9, state troopers are also being deployed to high traffic areas and nearly 100 school districts across the state will be closed on April 8 – Fayetteville Schools will be closed, but Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville will remain open.

The department expects the most congestion to happen near the path of totality which covers most of central Arkansas and about 53 of the state’s 75 counties.

Twenty five of the state’s parks are in the path of totality, with occupancy limited or completely booked at most. Hotels within the path are also dwindling with prices for a single night on the weekend of April 6 averaging around $300, according to the tourism department.

Nick Chiabarria is a spokesperson for AAA, the American Automobile Association, which released projects and tips for travelers during the eclipse.

“The last time we had the Eclipse come through, kind of really was eye opening for travelers,” he said. “You have to remember that a lot of the towns that the path of totality is traveling through, you know, they're smaller towns and the infrastructure simply isn't built to handle the influx of the tens of thousands of travelers that come into view it.”

He suggested travelers leave several hours early to reach their destination and to pack food and water in their car if they are traveling long distances.

Diane Holwick is the assitant library director at the Fort Smith Public Library, she’s also been in charge of distributing the library’s 28,000 pairs of eclipse glasses. The Arkansas State Library and the Institute of Museum and Library Services provided the eclipse-safe glasses for free to libraries across Arkansas.

Holwick said while Fort Smith is not directly in the path of totality, she has noticed people are interested in taking part, though they may not fully understand the impact this event could have.

“You know, there's so there's a lot of people that don't quite get the full extent of what they might be experiencing with people being in from out of town,” she said. “There's gonna be an impact, a once in a lifetime impact on the community with this once in a lifetime event."

According to NASA any given point on the Earth sees a total eclipse about once every 400 years and this one on April 8, which stretches across 13 U.S. states, is likely the most convenient option to see one for most Americans for at least another 20 years. Here’s Julia Kennefick.

To capitalize on this moment, she says people should first invest in a pair of those eclipse glasses, then if you want the full experience you need to visit the path of totality – she says a 99% partial eclipse is not the same as a total solar eclipse.

“It gets dark, but also you can see some things in the sky that you wouldn't be able to see when the sun is shining bright,” Kennefick said. “In particular, the thing that really strikes people during when they when they view a total solar eclipse is the corona so this is the outer atmosphere of the sun. And you know It has that name Corona - it means the crown in Spanish right? So it's the crown of the sun and it is really spectacular and something that you can't see at any other time.”

For those not in the direct path, she suggested people can look for shadows to create crescent moons or to use a homemade pinhole camera to see the path of the moon as it moves across the face of the sun.

And while the National Weather Service is projecting some rain in the forecast for Monday, Kennefick said the Eclipse is still visible, and spectacular, through clouds.

The next projected Eclipse to cross through Arkansas is scheduled for 2045.

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
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