Citizen scientists to shed light on eclipse

Aug 18, 2017

Dr. Henry "Trae" Winter has created an app that translates images of the eclipse into sound. Here, the "rumble map" features Baily's Beads, which can be seen when rays of light peak through the valleys between mountains on the moon during a total solar eclipse.
Credit Eclipse Soundscape app

On Monday, from coast to coast, people can watch what’s being called “The Great American Eclipse.” Scientists are calling on those millions of spectators to provide data and observations. Elizabeth Stewart-Severy checked in with researchers who are using the latest technology to learn about a full sensory experience, for all creatures on earth.  

Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter is a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He recalled a time when a blind colleague asked him what it was like to experience an eclipse.

“Everything I thought of to try to explain what an eclipse was like all had to do with visual information: light becoming dark, day becoming night,” he said. “All these terms that meant nothing to her.”

Today’s solar eclipse provides an opportunity for Winter to change the experience. These events occur somewhere on the planet about every two years, but this one is rare because it travels across thousands of miles of land — the entire United States — rather than oceans. This gives researchers access to tens of millions of potential citizen scientists from Oregon to South Carolina.

Winter is now working to create a soundscape of the eclipse, to use sound to tell the story of the celestial event. He’s gathering audio from average citizens, as well as organizations like the National Parks Service, and creating a massive database of sensory information.

Winter expects to hear a substantial shift in the human soundscape.

“The background hum of the hustle and bustle of life is probably going to change significantly,” he said. “And measuring how that background changes will not only be scientifically interesting, but it will be really engaging for a lot of people, including those who primarily experience and learn about the world around them through sound.”

Winter has also created an app that will bring to life the intensely visual experience of the eclipse through sound.

The Eclipse Soundscape app has a “rumble map” feature in which images of different moments in a total eclipse have been translated into sound. He demonstrates with an image of the so-called diamond ring effect, in which a brilliant burst of sunlight flares from the edge of the dark moon. He runs a finger through the twilight sky around the image of the eclipse. The sound intensifies in areas of light, drops to a hum in the darker parts of the photo.

Those sounds are designed to resonate the case of the device, causing it to shake or rumble in a multi-sensory interpretation of the eclipse.

A team of scientists at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is also working to better understand the myriad ways that the celestial event affects life on earth. Elise Ricard is coordinating the project.

In 2012, she sat on a beach bordering the tropical rain forest, ready to watch a total solar eclipse.

“If you’ve ever been to the rain forest, it’s loud,” she explained. “Lots of birds, lots of animals making noise.”

A shift happened as totality approached, that is, as the moon crept to fully cover the disk of the sun.  

“We noticed the birds behind us getting quiet, and it's a very interesting feeling to hear a jungle behind you go quiet,” Ricard said.

Ricard isn’t alone in noticing a change in animal behavior during a solar eclipse. There have been stories about chickens returning to roost, crickets chirping, and reports of whales acting strangely.  But most of the evidence for this is anecdotal, like Ricard’s own experience.

Now, she and her coworkers are using the iNaturalist app and calling on citizen scientists for research help.

“We’re thinking that we can gather more information than anybody’s been able to previously,” she said.  

iNaturalist is a tool to document the diversity of life on the planet, everything from plants to large mammals. All of those creatures in the United States will experience the eclipse. Researchers are using the app to learn more about how animals behave during the rare event.

The project combines disparate scientific fields: the study of life on earth and astrophysics, which is concerned with everything beyond our world. That’s the point.

“We’re all witnessing something together here on earth, this amazing celestial event, so I think there’s a lot of unity that goes along with that, just on a planetary scale, which is kind of cool,” Ricard said.

The ultimate goal, both Winter and Ricard said, is more participation in the scientific process, which allows us all to engage with our world and the cosmos beyond.