NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — You’ve heard of storm chasers, right?
Those adventurous folks who race right into the darkest clouds.
Derryl Barr runs the other way.
“We don’t want anything to do with the storms,” said Barr, 73, of Indianola, Iowa.
Barr is an eclipse chaser, a title he’s earned pursuing the rare celestial spectacle in places as far-flung as Russia, Mongolia and Peru.
With 17 total solar eclipses witnessed, he is among the most experienced chasers in the world. He has logged nearly 50 minutes in totality, when the sun is completely covered. That puts him among the leaders on an international eclipse-chasers log.
The former North Platte schoolteacher and one-time irrigation company owner hopes to add to that tally Aug. 21 when the solar eclipse plunges part of Nebraska into darkness.
The Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/2u2MxOa ) reports that everyone in the contiguous United States will see a partial eclipse, but Nebraska is one of 14 states crossed by the 70-mile-wide zone of totality.
With its favorable summer weather and good road network, the state is expected to lure thousands of visitors from neighboring states and other countries. Many hotels and campsites in the path of the eclipse are booked.
The last total solar eclipse visible from the contiguous United States was in 1979.
The experience of totality never gets old, Barr said. A normal day turns surreal, like an alien universe where neither day nor night exists, he said.
“It’s almost as if you’re in a 19th-century painting by an expressionist painter,” he said. “You want to see that transformation again. You want to catch the moment when it became surreal. You want to catch the moment when day ceased and it wasn’t replaced by night.”
Although he lives in Iowa, he spent 37 years in North Platte and considers it home.
An Army veteran who spent a year in Vietnam, Barr wrote astronomy columns for 18 years for the North Platte Telegraph and taught astronomy for eight years at Mid-Plains Community College in North Platte.
He caught the eclipse bug in 1979. He was teaching English at North Platte High School when the solar eclipse darkened parts of the Northwestern United States, Montana, North Dakota and Canada. He couldn’t get the day off from work, so he and his sixth-period students watched it from inside. They saw only a partial eclipse, 90 percent covered.
“I realized that I had to see more of this than 90 percent,” he said.
More than a decade passed without viewing a total eclipse. Then a health scare reordered his priorities.
In 1990 he found a lump growing in his neck. The doctor warned him there was a 1-in-10 chance it could be cancer. He had surgery around Christmas. It was a false alarm.
Barr said it was “a wake-up call” to cross some things off his bucket list before it was too late.
Within weeks he told his wife, Pam, he wanted to see an eclipse predicted to cross the southern tip of Baja California that July. It was being hailed as the eclipse of the century. The travel agent had bad news: Everything was booked. Then, weeks before the eclipse, the agent said tour companies had turned back unsold rooms. Barr and his wife jumped.
The Baja eclipse lasted 6 minutes — quite long for total eclipses — and it didn’t disappoint. It featured a symmetrical, spiked pattern of coronal streamers — plasma flowing from the sun out into space. He was hooked.
For eclipse chasers, timing is the easy part.
Astronomers can predict eclipses hundreds of years in advance — accurate to within a minute — using Newton’s laws of motion and mathematical equations. (You might want to mark your calendar for Sept. 17, 2992, when a total solar eclipse will run right over Omaha.)
Total solar eclipses occur at a frequency of about two every three years, according to NASA. But the land covered by totality — the destination for chasers — is only about 50 miles wide.
These narrow bands of totality occur in some “pretty hairy” places in the world, Barr said.
During Barr’s 1999 eclipse trip to Turkey, members of a Kurdish liberation group, the PKK, had announced that tourists were valid targets, he said. He viewed an eclipse in Egypt shortly after a tour bus was shot up by terrorists.
British friends who viewed one in Iran reported getting a dose of anti-American sentiment, including signs that said “We will bury the West,” Barr said.
As a result, he makes security his top priority when deciding where to travel, he said.
“I want people to hear about where I saw my most recent eclipse, not where my obituary says I saw my last eclipse,” he said.
His second consideration is weather. A location must have a good weather history, but there are no guarantees, he said. Staying mobile is key.
“You have to be able to have fluidity, getting from place to place if you do have local clouds,” he said. “You want to be able to do what we call chase the clear skies.”
Other considerations, he said, are duration of the eclipse (the longer, the better), availability of lodging and the accessibility of the location, he said.
“A lot of times eclipses take place in strange places of the world, out in the middle of the desert,” he said. “There’s no roads to it. A lot of times it takes place over the polar regions of the country.”
Since totality lasts only a few minutes, and the trip typically lasts a week, it’s good when a place has other diversions for travelers.
Barr said the second eclipse he viewed was probably the most beautiful.
It was in Bolivia in 1994, above 12,000 feet, on the altiplano between the ranges of the Andes Mountains, he said.
The coronal streamers were asymmetrical, stretching out great distances, he said.
“The coronal streamers were so vivid at that altitude that it absolutely had to be the most beautiful,” he said.
His trips haven’t always gone so well. If a camera is going to fail, he said, it will happen at the moment of eclipse.
It happened in 1995 in India. He took photos of the preliminary partial phases and then took the solar filter off his camera to shoot the diamond ring. That’s the phase when the sun is nearly completely obscured, leaving only a small bright “diamond” on the edge of the haloed moon.
“I had the perfect diamond ring, and I pushed the cable release and nothing happened,” he said.
His first impulse was to fix the camera. But he fought it because he didn’t want to be the guy whose memory of the eclipse was hunched over a camera in frustration. Instead, he said, he just looked up and watched.
“It was a fantastic experience,” he said.
In 2003, clouds crashed his 59th birthday in Scotland. He had hoped to view an annular eclipse. That is when the moon covers the center of the sun, leaving a fiery ring around it.
“We were so clouded out that we didn’t know when the sun came up or if it ever came up,” he said.
Fellow chaser John Duran, 56, of Trinidad, Colorado, has viewed 10 eclipses with Barr. Duran works for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. They met in 1995 in a desert in India and became friends.
Duran has seen nearly as many total eclipses as Barr — 16 — but says Barr is the expert.
“He’s my go-to guy whenever I have an astronomy question,” he said.
The two flew aboard a chartered Quantas Boeing 747 to witness a total solar eclipse over Antarctica in 2003. They bought three seats, one for the tripod, Duran said.
While passing through Peru on one trip, he said, they were surrounded by police.
“I thought ‘Oh, no, this isn’t good,’ ” he said.
They later learned that police were on high alert for terrorism, and Barr caught their attention when he took snapshots of the Japanese Embassy.
Duran and Barr plan to watch the Aug. 21 eclipse on a ranch north of Sutherland, Nebraska.
It will be much cheaper than their usual excursion. How does Barr pay for such trips?
“I tell people that I don’t play golf, so I have extra money,” he said.
He’s spent about $6,000 in camera equipment — not a lot compared with some chasers, he said.
Barr believes the North Platte area has a 76 percent likelihood of clear skies on E-day.
“The worst thing that can happen is for a low-pressure system to move in, and we have that high cirrus cloud that just hangs there and doesn’t depart,” he said.
If broken, scattered clouds are present, they usually disappear by afternoon, he said.
He encourages people to head for the zone of totality. The partial eclipse is not nearly as spectacular, he said. Residents of Lincoln will see the total eclipse. Omahans will have to drive to Lincoln or just south of Nebraska City to see it.
“I tell people the difference between seeing a total eclipse and seeing a partial eclipse is the difference between going to prom with the love of your life and having to escort your awkward cousin,” he said.
Barr is already looking beyond next month’s eclipse.
His goal is to accumulate a lifetime 60 minutes in the moon’s shadow. To date he’s logged 49 minutes, 16 seconds. Of 322 people in the eclipse-chaser log, only nine have hit the one-hour mark.
After the 2017 eclipse he’ll have a little over 51 minutes. He’ll head to the South Pacific in 2019 and pick up 3 minutes, 20 seconds. Then it’s off to Argentina in 2020 to add about 2 minutes.
That will put him within striking distance of his goal during the 2024 eclipse in the U.S.
Barr savors his experiences.
But he says he envies first-time eclipse watchers because “there’s no picture I can show you, there’s no words I can tell you, there’s no video I can play for you that will prepare you for what you’re going to experience.”
Weather permitting, of course.
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Omaha World-Herald.