As millions of Americans prepare to view the upcoming solar eclipse, vendors are stocking up on — and in some cases running out of — specialized viewers needed to avoid potentially serious and permanent eye damage.
On Aug. 21, the first total eclipse of the sun in the U.S. since 1979 will sweep across the country from Oregon to South Carolina, with the rest of the country witnessing a partial eclipse. While Wisconsinites won’t witness a full eclipse, you’ll still need “eclipse glasses,” or some type of other viewer to safely look directly at it.
Some vendors and online retailers have started to run out of the glasses, said American Astronomical Society spokesman and self-proclaimed “eclipse chaser” Rick Fienberg.
“It’s getting hard to find them now,” he said. “If you don’t do that soon, it’s going to be too late.”
In Madison on Friday, the glasses were sold out at Kirkland’s on the Far East Side and at Toys R Us on the Far West Side.
Jim Lattis, director of UW-Madison’s Space Place astronomy outreach center, said he is out of glasses he ordered to give away at discussions about the eclipse he has led or participated in.
But other stores, like Madison-area Walmarts, were still selling the glasses for $1; a pair of glasses with an informational eclipse booklet was going for about $3.50. And a two-pack at Casey’s General Store in Verona could be had for $2.99.
Several area libraries, including the Sequoya and Alicia Ashman branch libraries in Madison, will also give free glasses to attendees of library events leading up to the eclipse.
By looking directly at the solar eclipse — even briefly — without proper protection, you risk a form of blindness called solar retinopathy, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
“Even the tiniest sliver, even 1 percent of the surface of the sun is so bright ... you could potentially injure your eyes,” the American Astronomical Society’s Fienberg cautioned. “It doesn’t take very long before you’re exposing your eyes to serious risk.”
Eclipse watchers in the 60- to 70-mile-wide “path of totality” that will cut through much of the middle U.S. could briefly look directly at the eclipse without protection when the moon fully covers the sun. However, in Madison — where a maximum of 85 percent of the sun will be blocked by the moon at about 1:15 p.m. — that won’t be an option.
Beware of fakes
If you’re buying eclipse glasses, you’ll also want to be sure they’re not cheap knock-offs, Fienberg said.
“The market is being flooded with counterfeits,” he said. “People are being hoodwinked into buying glasses that may not be safe.”
Safe eclipse glasses should be stamped with a label indicating they meet the international “ISO 12312-2” standard — although Fienberg said counterfeiters have also started to print that on fake glasses.
The only way to ensure you have safe glasses is to buy them from vendors and manufacturers approved by the American Astronomical Society, he said. The full list can be found at eclipse.aas.org/resources/solar-filters.
Glasses or other solar filters also shouldn’t be used if they’re scratched or damaged, according to the astronomical society. Sunglasses, even dark ones, aren’t safe for looking at an eclipse.
More safety tips can be found at aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/solar-eclipse-eye-safety.
If Aug. 21 comes and you don’t have an approved eclipse viewer, you can always make a free and relatively simple device, like the “vastly under-appreciated” pinhole viewer, UW-Madison’s Lattis said. Pinhole viewers create a reflection of the eclipse by filtering the light through a small opening.
“There’s no reason to panic if you don’t have eclipse viewers themselves,” he said. “Old fashioned pinhole viewers work just as good ... and they cost nothing.”