An out of this world event

By Melanie Sisinni

ERIE — On Monday, April 8, much of the Diocese of Erie will be in the path of totality for the total solar eclipse. Though several events are planned throughout the region, Mercyhurst University and Dr. Nick Lang have worked for more than a year to ensure Erie residents are prepared and have opportunities to participate in and understand this significant event.

         Dr. Lang is the chair of the Department of Geology at Mercyhurst University, a co-director of Environmental Science and a professor. Most recently, he spent two years working with NASA, further developing his lifelong interest in space. 

         One of his passions is science activation, also known as citizen science, which involves getting average people excited and interested in science and contributing to scientific databases.

Logo courtesy of Mercyhurst University

         Lang knew NASA was looking for places in the path of totality to be designated as official “SunSpots,” so when he and his colleagues at NASA were discussing outreach activities for the total solar eclipse on April 8, he knew the two institutions would be a perfect match.

         “Cleveland and Buffalo are also in the path of totality, and there were events going on there, but there was nothing in Erie,” said Lang. “I said, ‘Hey, we could do something here in Erie. Can I take the pressure off everybody in these other SunSpot locations? So I volunteered Erie and mentioned Mercyhurst since it’s my home institution, and it just went from there.”

         Lang said he has at least eight colleagues from NASA traveling to Erie County for the eclipse, stationed in various locations like Lake Erie Speedway, upper Peach Street and downtown Erie. Lang will be staffing a table at Mercyhurst during the event devoted to understanding the eclipse, how it happens, what viewers will see and promoting safety during the eclipse.

         “That’s one of the big things I’ll be pushing when I’m at Mercyhurst… wearing these Eclipse glasses and making sure that the eclipse glasses you have are ISO-approved,” said Lang. “They need to meet ISO specifications. If they don’t have ISO, they may not be safe glasses to wear for the eclipse.” 

         Sarah Allen, assistant vice president of Student Life at Mercyhurst, is on the planning committee for the Eclipse Within Our Gates at Mercyhurst University, a weekend-long series of events on campus from Friday, April 5, through Monday, April 8. She said anyone and everyone is welcome at Mercyhurst for their planned events, in addition to various lectures on campus.

         “We have quite a few neighbors within a half mile of campus, so we’re hoping that our neighbors come and join us,” said Allen. “We’re going to have music. There are going to be concession stands. We will take our Saxon stadium — our football field — and create a playground out there of different lawn games and things for people to do.”

          Allen said there will be “make and take” events where kids and adults can participate and take something special home to remember this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Activities include painting rocks, making bracelets that glow in the dark and build-your-own ISO-approved eclipse viewers.

         “Our Science Department, along with Girl Scouts over at St. Luke’s, are going to work together to build eclipse viewers out of cereal boxes,” said Allen. “We’re going to do photo stations as well. Everybody wants to create that memory, so we’re going to have backdrops in areas for people to be able to take pictures and put those out there.”

         Though Erie weather can be unpredictable during the spring, Lang assures that people will still feel the effects, even in cloudy conditions.

         “Obviously, Erie is going to be totality, but you’re going to notice it getting dark,” said Lang. “Animals might be going to sleep, other nocturnal animals might be coming out. You’re also going to feel a temperature drop. It doesn’t matter if it’s cloudy outside.” 

         Lang also said eclipses can influence the weather.

         “In the case that it is cloudy, you’re still going to be able to sort of experience the eclipse,” said Lang. “With the temperature dropping and getting dark, the sky may clear up. Eclipses can actually help influence clouds and cloud formation, so you might actually see clouds dissipate over the course of the eclipse. We want people to understand that from the NASA side about the science of the eclipse.” 

          Erie is expected to have over 200,000 people flocking to the city for the eclipse, leaving many residents unsure if they want to leave their homes during the event. If that’s the case, Lang says people have several opportunities to participate in citizen science to influence and add to eclipse research.

Mercyhurst University students model glow-in-the dark tee
shirts currently sold in the campus bookstore, as well as ISO-
approved eyewear.
Photo courtesy of Mercyhurst University

         “There are free apps from NASA where people can record their observations regarding the weather and the temperature,” said Lang. “There’s one called ‘Eclipse Soundscapes’, where people can record their observations regarding the sounds that they experience during the eclipse regarding what happens with animals. Since we’re in the path of totality, there’s another activity called ‘Sun Sketcher,’ and they can actually contribute and add data for these events or for these specific tasks into the app, and then it will be fed directly to scientists who are trying to better understand these things.”

         Lang detailed a specific example of how this citizen science research may be used.

         “We don’t know the exact size of the sun. We know how big it is, but the outermost atmosphere of the sun, what we call the corona, we can’t see during the day, so it’s hard to measure that,” said Lang. “During an eclipse, when the moon is totally blocking out the sun, you get that corona around the sun so you can see it. That allows us to get a better measurement, better determination on more specific measurement of the size of the sun. And that can only happen during totality. People can use their smartphone to measure the sun, to record the sun during totality, not during the not totality stages. You might fry your phone or your smart device if you are looking directly at the sun with it. But during totality, you can record what’s happening, and that helps us measure the exact size of the sun.”

         The next total solar eclipse won’t occur until 2044, but the Diocese of Erie will not be in the path of totality at that time. Now is the time to appreciate the beauty and majesty of God’s perfect creation.

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         For a full listing of events taking place during the eclipse weekend at Mercyhurst University, visit: