‘Shadow Snakes’ Are the Rare Solar Eclipse Mystery Scientists Still Don’t Fully Understand

Maggie Rossetti/Thrillist
Maggie Rossetti/Thrillist

With just days left to go before the total solar eclipse on August 21, the historic celestial spectacle needs no introduction. But despite the eclipse information overload in the breathless lead-up to the event, there’s still an earthly mystery belying the phenomenon that you probably haven’t heard about; namely, shadow bands or as some call them, “shadow snakes.”

Those along the eclipse’s continent-wide path of totality will be blanketed in eerie midday darkness as the moon obscures the sun, but some people may be lucky enough to also witness the snake-like shadow bands, which are as rare as they are visually alluring. While the creepy effect -- much like the look of a rippling pond or a swimming pool illuminated by ample sunlight -- are a natural byproduct of total solar eclipses, they have long puzzled viewers and scientists alike, according to NASA.

The fleeting displays only occur in the moments just before totality, or when the moon completely covers the sun, and the moments just after, as the moon starts to get out of the way again. Shadow bands are so rare that few images of the darting shadows exist, but some eclipse chasers have managed to capture the wonder on video (shown below). In other words, even if you're fortunate enough to watch a total solar eclipse from the path of totality, you probably still won't see them. That's basically like winning the eclipse lottery. 

click to play video

Although there is a bit of conjecture and legend surrounding shadow bands -- for years, scientists debated their underlying cause -- Joe Rao, an associate at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York, likens the effect of shadow bands to the appearance of twinkling stars.

“The atmosphere at times can be very unstable and very turbulent, and so we end up seeing that turbulence when we look up at the sky and the stars,” he tells Thrillist. “As those light beams go through the atmosphere, they’re kind of jiggled or move in such a manner that it would give the impression that they’re twinkling up in the sky.”

But they’re not actually twinkling, mind you. In truth, volatile pockets of air affect our perception of the stars back on the ground, giving them a shimmering, twinkling appearance when we look up at the sky.

This same phenomenon causes shadow bands to beam down to Earth from the sun, 93,000,000 miles away. As Rao explains, shadow bands are “a distortion of the final rays of sunlight, coming down through our atmosphere,” right before and after the moon completely covers the sun. During the “final moments of totality, you see these bands of light and dark, shifting, shimmering,” Rao says. So when you see a shadow band, you’re not witnessing magic, although it might appear that way. Instead, you’re seeing the edges of fleeting sunlight cutting through turbulence.

And yes, catching one of these things in the flesh is a bonafide rarity. For example, as Rao tells it: “I have been to a 11 total eclipses, and I’ve never seen a shadow band effect during a total eclipse.” But even so, there are things you can do to augment the likelihood of catching them. For starters, try bringing a white bed sheet or screen to the spot where you're viewing the eclipse and laying it down perpendicular to the sun. Most vibrantly white surfaces can often be host to shadow bands, even the doors of a white sedan.

The prevailing lesson though, is to pray for turbulent weather. “Your chances of seeing [shadow bands] will be accentuated by just how unstable the atmosphere is,” Rao explains. “If for example a storm has just passed by, or a cold front has just passed by, and it’s very breezy or windy, I think there’s a much better chance of seeing the bands, as opposed to seeing them when you have calm conditions.”

And with a glut of campsites still available for dirt cheap, all situated along the eclipse’s path, your chances might portend a rare brush with the shadow snakes that you'll never forget. 

Wanna see the solar eclipse for yourself? Check out Thrillist's state-by-state watch guides to the best viewing spots in Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and Wyoming.

You can also start preparing for your next eclipse with our guide.

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Sam Blum is a News Staff Writer for Thrillist. He's also a martial arts and music nerd who appreciates a fine sandwich and cute dogs. Find his clips in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club and Esquire. He's on Twitter @Blumnessmonster