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Annular Solar Eclipse Day at the Solar Eclipse Village in Uvalde County, Texas: Personal Insights

Descriptions of what happened at the Solar Eclipse Village, and tips for event planners for the total solar eclipse.

Published onMar 15, 2024
Annular Solar Eclipse Day at the Solar Eclipse Village in Uvalde County, Texas: Personal Insights
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Abstract

This article summarizes Eclipse Day at the Solar Eclipse Village in Garner State Park, the primary eclipse outreach event for Uvalde County, Texas, providing key insights and practical guidance for event coordinators of the Total Solar Eclipse of April 8, 2024.

1. In the Eclipse Crossroads at Garner State Park

Uvalde County, Texas, is a community that lies upon the eclipse crossroads of both the 2023 Annular Solar Eclipse and the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse (Figure 1). The city of Uvalde lies approximately 1.5 hours northwest of San Antonio. Garner State Park is the focal point for tourism in the region and one of the most popular parks in Texas. 

map of the eclipse path in Texas
Figure 1

Map of Uvalde County in eclipse crossroads, Credit: Michael Zeiler, Great American Eclipse

Garner State Park (GSP) is in a premium location for the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse, boasting one of the longest durations and best weather prospects along the US path of totality. The park was well-placed within the 2023 path of annularity, making the location an ideal base for feature eclipse celebrations for both eclipses. Figure 2 shows details of both solar eclipses from GSP.

chart of eclipse details
Figure 2

Details of the 2023 and 2024 solar eclipses as observed from Garner State Park

 Origin and Goals of Eclipse Day in the Solar Eclipse Village

 From July to October 2023, I re-engaged with Uvalde County specifically to support planning for the annular solar eclipse. My role as Partnership Coordinator was to bring eclipse experts, outreach projects, and STEM opportunities to the region, mobilizing the feeling of goodwill following the tragedy of 2022. I aligned all plans with the Uvalde County Eclipse Strategy and Implementation Plan I undertook from September 2022 to April 2023 to ensure a lasting legacy for the region. This plan also drove all media communications I undertook while engaged in the region.

Two people smiling in front of the Garner State Park sign
Figure 3

Kate Russo working on behalf of Visit Uvalde and the Texas Hill Country River Region, and Kelby Bridwell, Garner State Park Superintendent, in final preparations to host the Solar Eclipse for the Annular Solar Eclipse. © Kate Russo.

The signature eclipse event created for the annual solar eclipse was the Solar Eclipse Village (SEV) – a two-day weekend event aimed to appeal to those seeking a free, family-friendly, and educational eclipse experience amidst nature. Figure 4 shows the summary two-day program of the Solar Eclipse Village.

program for the weekend
Figure 4

Two-day summary program of the Solar Eclipse Village weekend at Garner State Park in Uvalde County, Texas

Garner State Park hosted the event in a well-resourced area that allowed increased parking capacity and adequate traffic flow. Uvalde County and the Texas Hill Country River Region agreed to fund the essential operational costs. All contributors met their own costs. Admission to the SEV was free, and parking was complimentary. Advance registration for a SEV day vehicle pass was needed to guarantee entry to the park. Registrations closed the day before the eclipse once the capacity of 250 vehicles was reached.

Group of people looking up at the Sun with solar safety glasses on.
Figure 5

Kate Russo and the Garner State park rangers at the eclipse briefing. © Kate Russo.

2. Eclipse Day: October 14, 2023

A narrative of the day

Figure 6 shows the Eclipse Day program at the Solar Eclipse Village. 

program
Figure 6

The Eclipse Day Program at the Solar Eclipse Village

A small crowd assembled in the Moonshadow Marquee for morning presentations, centering on eclipse education, safe solar viewing, and other eclipse briefings about citizen science opportunities. Five attendees enthusiastically volunteered for the Project Awe pilot study, which used EEG headsets to capture the awe of the solar eclipse.   

Left, a man looking through a solar telescope, right, many people looking up through a solar canopy.
Figure 7

Michael Preston, UTSA, setting up the solar telescope for safe solar viewing (left) and under the eclipse viewing tent which has a mylar panel, allowing a safe group viewing experience (right). © Kate Russo.

Near the Moonshadow Pavilion lay the viewing field, where all outdoor activities were centered. By 10a.m., many had set up chairs and blankets spread out across the viewing field, settling in to enjoy the eclipse over several hours (Figure 8, Figure 9, and Figure 10). The Texas Parks & Wildlife Discover team set up nearby, filming activities for an eclipse documentary along with another team.

left, two people sitting in chairs looking up, right, four people sitting on a blanket looking up with solar safety glasses on.
Figure 8

Zero gravity chairs and a gorilla cart is the way to go for practical comfort (left) and hanging about enjoying the eclipse (right). © Kate Russo.

left, two people looking up at the Sun through Sun safety sheets, right, two people sitting up and looking up with solar safety glasses on.
Figure 9

Texas eclipse chasers Leticia Ferrer and her husband, Daniel Brookshier (left) and Uvalde local chaser enjoying the experience with a friend (right). © Kate Russo.

left family looking up with solar safety glasses on, right family looking up with solar safety glasses on.
Figure 10

Kids enjoying and safely observing the eclipse (left) and the Hall family taking time out to enjoy the view (right). @Kate Russo.

A dense cloud covered the sky in the morning, with local weather forecasters predicting clear skies after 10 a.m. Despite the cloud that never quite cleared, the mood remained upbeat. First contact at 10:22am was visible for all, leading to a ripple of excitement as the eclipse began, appropriately marked by the unmistakable mariachi introduction to the "Ring of Fire".  Clouds frequently parted giving ample glimpses of the progressing eclipse through solar filters. (Figure 11 - partial eclipse).

The Moon starting to cover the Sun
Figure 11

Just after first contact. © Hailey Conrad, Texas Hill Country River Region

Outreach activities, led by NASA researchers, UTSA graduate students, and Park staff included solar telescopes, sunspotters, and a range of other tools for safe solar viewing and education (Figure 12, Figure 13).

left, people at a table, right kid looking through a telescope
Figure 12

People gathering around the outreach table at the Solar Eclipse Village (left) and supervised watching through the solar scope (right). © Kate Russo.

A cameraman filming someone talking
Figure 13

Dr Lika Guhathakurta, NASA HQ being filmed explaining the solar eclipse to the crowd. © Kate Russo.

Changes in light and shadow effects were noticeable at 11:15 a.m. As the time of annularity drew closer, some noted a drop in temperature and a shift in wind direction. The presence of cloud added a dramatic edge to the experience. But miraculously, moments before annularity the clouds thinned, much to the excitement and thrill of the crowd.

We were already standing in awe as the time of annularity arrived at 11:50 a.m., accompanied again by the day’s song “Ring of Fire”. At greatest annularity, the Sun was 91% obscured by the Moon.  The ring was visible throughout, and solar filters were used (Figure 14). At this location, the 4-minute 55 second duration of annularity gave lots of time to observe, photograph, gather, and share things of note with others. A few minutes after annularity was over, I noted the steady exodus across the field and toward the car park.

Sun during annularity with a bright orange ring.
Figure 14

The Sun during annularity. Hailey Conrad, Texas Hill Country River Region

Those who remained continued to enjoy the celestial show, sharing stories and experiences, while outreach activities continued (Figure 15). I delivered a 20-minute live Slooh.com session sharing the vibe and Project Awe pilot data that was still being captured in that moment1.

Women looking up at the sky through something in the hands
Figure 15

Outreach activities at the Solar Eclipse Village by the National Solar Observatory, © National Solar Observatory

Fourth contact occurred at 1:30p.m. Again, the “Ring of Fire” seemed the perfect choice to bid farewell to the alignment of the Sun and Moon. Instead of the usual post-totality plunge into despair, it was pretty special knowing that many would gather at this very location in another 177 days, collectively looking up to experience an even more dramatic totality.  

The group photo (Figure 16) was great to do and captured the spirit of the event. Recording short post-eclipse videos with attendees and Project Awe participants was humbling, as people shared their experiences and what surprised them the most.

large group photo with lots of excitement.
Figure 16

Group photo taken just after fourth contact. ©Texas Parks & Wildlife Outreach.

The afternoon program continued with an eclipse debriefing, Project Awe feedback and initial findings, more presentations with the National Solar Observatory, and workshops, followed by practical astrophotography and stargazing under the clear skies into the late evening (Figure 17).  It was an incredibly exciting, but long day.

Group of people sitting in chairs looking at a projector screen while someone talks.
Figure 17

Afternoon astrophotography session with Steve Irwin, followed by an evening practical. © Kate Russo.

Who Attended

The SEV day pass registrations collected home zip codes, revealing the locations from which people traveled to attend the annular eclipse day (Figure 18). On entry to the Moonshadow Marquee, attendees placed pushpins on a US map representing their home location (Figure 19), and on a separate map to show their intended location for viewing the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse.

map of US marking locations where attendees came from
Figure 18

Map of where the Solar Eclipse Village attendees came from.

map of Texas with red pushpins in it.
Figure 19

Map of where attendees at the Solar Eclipse Village came from to view the ‘ring of fire’ eclipse, © Kate Russo.

Official estimates suggest around 1,200 came through the Solar Eclipse Village on eclipse day. Overall, crowd behavior was excellent, the viewing field was left spotless, and no parking or traffic issues were reported.

Feedback of the Eclipse Day at the SEV

During the afternoon discussions, I asked the audience to rate their annular eclipse experience on a scale of 1 to 10, comparing it to other experiences they've had. All ratings exceeded 6, many gave a perfect 10, with an average of 8 out of a sample of around 30. Those who had never before seen an eclipse could not believe the 2024 total solar eclipse would be on a completely different scale.

Attendees shared positive feedback on the day’s presentations, projects, outreach activities, and experiences. Although we lacked a real-time capture system, social media comments reflected the overall positive experience of attendees: 

“I want to commend you on your very informative eclipse show. You walked everyone throughout the whole ordeal. I learned a lot that I will pass on to my grandchildren. I felt safe looking at the eclipse. Thank you and your group.” (Michele C, via Facebook message)

Brief videos capturing the post-eclipse experience of those involved in planning can be viewed in Video 1, Video 2, Video 3, and Video 4.

Video 1

Reflection by Erica Sagebiel © Kate Russo.

Video 2

Reflection by Hailey Hart Conrad © Kate Russo.

Video 3

Reflection by Michael Preston © Kate Russo.

Video 4

Reflection by Simon Mendenhall © Kate Russo.

3. Reflections and Learnings

The following summary of learnings just for eclipse day may be helpful for those planning events for the April 2024 Total Solar Eclipse.

What Worked Well

  • The staff at Garner State Park were exceptional and shared their joy and passion for the park throughout the day. Some rangers actively participated in afternoon sessions, offering valuable insights and experiences garnered from their work in the park.

  • Changes in brainwave activity were recorded during annularity (and other moments) by Project Awe participants, which is the first time such data has been captured (Russo & Bailey, 2024).

  • The range of outreach activities was highly commended, with sunspotters being very popular.

  • Attendees seemed confident in safely viewing the eclipse.

  • Visitation levels were comparable to high-season crowds and well within the park's capacity.

  • The ‘Ring of Fire’ earworm remained active for a good week and remains a powerful reminder of that awe-inspiring and shared experience in Uvalde County. 

What Did Not Work So Well

  • The tight planning timeline posed challenges for marketing, resulting in delays in producing materials, programs, and schedules. Critical elements like our hashtags, post-eclipse survey, and QR code were not shared until after the event, which was a lost opportunity for sharing interactions, photos, videos and testimonials.

  • Our attempts to project the eclipse image onto the marquee wall proved problematic, consuming excessive time and resources before being abandoned.

  • The weather station was located away from the outreach area, preventing regular readings.

  • The eclipse viewing canopy, while a great structure, faced interference from wind and clouds, limiting the long-term use of the structure to increase accessibility. However, it worked incredibly well on the Monday with clear blue skies and no wind.

  • Pre-booking SEV passes gave some indication of expected numbers; however not everyone who pre-booked attended. This was a significant issue for the SEV Sunday program and for other parks for the annular solar eclipse events, where people were turned away to accommodate those with allocated passes who ultimately did not attend, resulting in lower-than-expected visitor numbers.

Suggestions for Those Preparing Events for the 2024 Total Solar Eclipse

  • Automate tasks whenever possible, even if the initial setup takes time.

  • Establish a communication system, such as radios, for on-site volunteers or runners to be easily located when needed.

  • Despite your best efforts, people WILL leave immediately after annularity or totality.

  • For a group photo, capture the moment right after first contact when there is excitement, rather than waiting for the end of the eclipse or after totality.

  • Consider outdoor speaker placement to ensure compatibility between outreach activities and music.

  • Use multiple microphones to allow conversations between those doing outreach and include hands-free options to allow for demonstrations.

  • Look for natural pinhole projection opportunities. Projected mini-crescents are more visible on a clean, light surface than on uneven ground. If the site lacks trees, bring fake tree branches for a more natural aesthetic.

  • Be prepared to have repeated discussions with the excited DJ. Ensure they are aware that the music is complementary to the event and not the event itself, and give them a copy of the detailed schedule.

  • Event pre-registrations and accommodation bookings can indicate demand and allow for capacity planning. However, intention to travel on the day remains an unknown.

  • Keep things simple. Low-tech outreach activities were the most popular.

4. Conclusion

Less than four months was available to conceive, plan, and execute the Solar Eclipse Village event, with operational support from Uvalde County, THCRR, and Garner State Park. The event would not have been possible without the goodwill of all those who contributed their time, resources, and energy to create something special.

Eclipse day in the SEV marked one of two significant days within a broader Partnership Coordination project that aimed to support eclipse and STEM initiatives throughout Uvalde County in the eclipse crossroads. This eclipse viewing event was just one of numerous celebrations happening across Uvalde County, each offering its own unique experience, lessons and insights.

Currently, organizers in Uvalde County and the Texas Hill Country River Region are gearing up for the main event, the Total Solar Eclipse on April 8, 2024. This time, the emphasis is on ensuring that those seeking refuge from crowds can savor nature's grand spectacle in the serene beauty of the region’s natural environments.

5. Acknowledgements

A special thanks to the following people who played an active role in helping plan and support Eclipse Day at the Solar Eclipse Village, noting that this list is not exhaustive:

  • Kelby Bridwell, Park Superintendent, Garner State Park

  • Nicholas Sanchez, Distance Learning and School Engagement Coordinator, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

  • Jacob Gonzalez, Ranger, Garner State Park

  • Erica Sagebiel, Director, Visit Uvalde County

  • Hailey Hart Conrad, Media Manager, Visit Uvalde County

  • Danny Williams, Uvalde County Visitor Centre

  • Forrest Anderson, Emergency Management Coordinator, Uvalde County

  • Mitzi Adams, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

  • Lika Guhathakura, NASA’s HQ

  • Lindsay Fuller, Eclipse Program Manager, UTSA

  • Angela Speck, Professor of Astrophysics, UTSA

  • Michael Preston, Graduate Student, UTSA

Gratitude is also extended to all contributors to the two-day SEV and other STEM activities across the region.

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