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Exploring the Western NY Wilds: What backyard astronomers can expect in 2024

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April 8th “….maybe THE sky event of your entire life”

By Bob Confer

If you live in Allegany County you’re probably a backyard astronomer of sorts. You might find yourself outdoors on a clear night marveling at the countless stars in the heavens. There’s something innate, something primeval, about the love affair with the nighttime skies. The universe is fascinating, awe-inspiring, and relaxing – after a day of hustle and bustle and going in a hundred different directions, it’s comforting to look skyward, see that vastness and realize that we and our human experiences are but tiny, inconsequential blips in the whole scheme of things.

Far from the inescapable light pollution of big cities and their suburbs that haunt WNY locales like the Buffalo and Rochester metro areas, we’re blessed in Allegany County with incredible dark skies that lend themselves to great viewing of the cosmos.

As a matter of fact, some people even travel here to take in the nighttime sights.

They plan for it, based on the calendar of events for celestial activities.

You should plan accordingly, too. Mark your calendars now, so you’re ready to get the most out of looking skyward.

To help you plan for skywatching in 2024, here’s a look at some of the nighttime sights – and daytime sights — on tap for the year.

Lunar eclipses

On the night of March 24th/25th there will be a penumbral lunar eclipse. Such eclipses aren’t very dramatic. They occur when the outer shadow of Earth falls upon the moon’s face. It doesn’t create blacked out parts of the moon. Instead, it creates a more subtle shading, so subtle that most people don’t notice the event at all. 

Early in the morning of September 18th there will be a partial lunar eclipse…as in very partial. Most of the event will present itself as a penumbral lunar eclipse. Only a very small part of the moon, 4% of it near the cap, will be made fully dark. 

Northern Lights

The aurora borealis or northern lights are more abundant when the sun’s face is covered with sunspots and it is emitting all sorts of flares and other solar energy. From the mid-2010s and through the pandemic years, the sun wasn’t too eventful as it was at the bottom of the 11-year sunspot cycle — and that past cycle was a dud to begin with. Solar Cycle 25 is well underway and it has been surprising astronomers with its liveliness in 2022 and 2023.  

The northern lights will become more common for our latitude in 2024 and again in 2025 when the cycle peaks. We aren’t as lucky as northern Canada when it comes to these amazing celestial sights – they see them in abundance and in extraordinary detail — but that doesn’t mean the sun won’t surprise us on occasion. If I had to guess, Allegany County residents will get to see them well on six occasions in 2024.   

If you want to know when you have a chance, a great tool is the aurora oval (updated every few minutes) on the left side toolbar of the website SpaceWeather.com. If the green or red hue takes over or comes close to the US-Canada border on that map, it’s time to get outside and look. You don’t ever want to miss the northern lights. They are incredible.

The best meteor showers

The Persieds meteor shower never ceases to amaze, throwing some really bright meteors out there. 2016 was an outburst year, and I saw nearly 100 shooting stars over an hour and a half period on the peak night. While 2024’s shower won’t reach such numbers, the Perseids is always a good show. Even during lean years, you can see 30 to 60 per hour, some of them being impressive fireballs, the sight of which will be seared in your memory forever.

In 2024, Perseids will peak on the night of August 11th heading into the morning hours of the 12th (and there is very fine viewing 2 days on either side of the peak). Your best bet is after midnight. Look towards the constellation Perseus to see them in their full beauty. Viewing will be excellent in 2024 as there will be hardly any moonlight to obscure the fireworks as the first quarter moon sets around midnight.  

December’s Geminids shower, which is a consistent and totally underrated meteor shower (probably because your average person doesn’t like sitting outside in cold weather), won’t be the best to watch in 2024 because of the full moon that night. This event will peak overnight December 13th into December 14th. Despite the moon, don’t overlook this event as skywatchers love this show for its sometimes colorful meteors.  

New moons

If you are serious about stargazing, you will as I do mark on your calendar every date on which there is a new moon. Basically “no moon,” the new moon ensures there is no moonlight robbing your skywatching experience, meaning you have full visibility of the stars, the Milky Way, meteors and more. You typically have perfect dark sky viewing for four days on either side of the new moon.

New moons will occur on: January 11, February 9, March 10, April 8, May 8, June 6, July 5, August 4, September 2, October 2, November 1, and December 1.

Solar eclipse

This is THE sky event of the year and maybe THE sky event of your entire life.

On Monday, April 8th Western New York will be in the direct path of a total solar eclipse. It’s believed that millions of people from all over the world will come to WNY to experience it, which speaks to how awesome this will be. A total blackout! It will put to shame the partial solar eclipse that we saw here in 2017. I can’t wait to see it and experience the stillness as the natural world as birds and mammals adjust to the unexpected loss of sunlight.

The northern half of Allegany County will be in the path of totality while the southern half will be so close many won’t notice the difference. Even so, I would strongly suggest that if you live in the town of Independence or even Wellsville that you spend the afternoon in Cuba or at Hanging Bog to experience the absolute darkest of the daytime sky. The event will begin just after 2:00 PM and slowly progress with the full eclipse happening around 3:20 PM. The event will slowly come to a close, reaching full sun around 4:40 PM.

Words of advice for the solar eclipse:

  • Get some special glasses for watching the eclipse unfold – and do it now! Remember the shortage during 2017’s event?
  • If your kids are scheduled to have school that day, keep them home or get them at the half day. Don’t let them miss it – it won’t be fun to watch it from a school bus (many schools in New York have already booked a day off for it, so glance at your district’s calendar)
  • Book one of your vacation/personal days now with your employer. Some employers (like mine) have scheduled a special paid holiday for that day
  • Hit the breakers for your outdoor lights at home or at your workplace that day – any one of them with photo eyes will activate during the event. Don’t ruin that moment! 
  • To see what the event might look like and why location matters, check out https://eclipse2024.org/eclipse_cities/statemap.html and zoom in. Once you find the location of your home or potential viewing site, left click which brings up a bubble that has a link within it that says “open Eclipse2024.org’s eclipse simulator for this location”. At that link you will be able to watch the simulator to see how the eclipse plays out every minute at that location
  • Many municipalities, government agencies, chambers of commerce, and businesses will be holding special events and parties that day. Keep an eye on their social media and websites. Allegany County’s webpage for the eclipse is: https://wnywilds.com/2024-eclipse/  

Enjoy skywatching in 2024! I hope your nights (and your day on April 8th) are filled with meteors, northern lights, and total awe.

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Gary Edward Fanton, 80, formerly of Wellsville

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Brandy Lynn Ford, 44, Wellsville/Greenwood

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