Nearly a half-million people could descend on the total eclipse zone in Nebraska on Aug. 21, according to an analysis by a veteran eclipse chaser and map expert.
Michael Zeiler, who created the Great American Eclipse website, based his forecast on the country’s road networks, population distribution and his estimation of how far people would be willing to drive to see the spectacular event.
Nebraska is the closest, most convenient state for motorists from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota and North Dakota to view the eclipse, he said.
He predicts anywhere from 117,000 to 466,000 visitors will drive into the 70-mile-wide, 500-mile-long zone in Nebraska where the moon will totally block out the sun for a couple of minutes.
The analysis does not include people who are flying in from other states or countries.
Zeiler created what he calls “drive-shed” maps, which he said are analogous to maps of river systems. A watershed map models how drops of rain accumulate on the surface, and how they flow through rivulets, streams and then rivers, he said.
“The same thing will happen with traffic,” Zeiler said. “People coming from all over are naturally going to take the shortest path or the near-shortest path to their destination. So they’re inevitably going to get funneled on certain Interstates and highways.”
His analysis predicts potential traffic choke points in extreme southeast Nebraska, where the center line of totality runs just south of Falls City. The duration of the eclipse is longest on the center line.
In South Carolina, the intersection of Interstate 95 and the center line is the closest point for almost a third of the U.S. population, making it “an absolutely predictable nightmare area,” he said.
He predicts that Missouri, Oregon and Tennessee will also see major impacts because of the proximity of populated areas.
Nationally, between 1.85 million and 7.4 million people will travel to the totality zone that runs from Oregon to South Carolina, he said.
Zeiler, a writer and analyst for the geographic information system mapping company Esri, said his estimates should be viewed as an initial approximation. Actual traffic patterns will be influenced significantly by weather and the buzz generated around the event on social media, he said.
“For a majority of Americans, this is not on their radar yet,” he said. “But I think that this being the first total solar eclipse in the social media era for this country, it will have a huge impact. This is exactly the kind of event that will go viral on social media.”
Zeiler, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said he has personally observed eight solar eclipses.
He has reservations to watch this one in Wyoming, but will be flexible enough to race to Idaho or Nebraska if necessary to avoid a storm system. He’s been chasing eclipses since 1991.
He said the goal of his analysis is not to scare people about traffic snarls but to help them plan.
“There’s plenty of room inside the path of totality if people distribute themselves well,” he said. “The other piece of advice is to arrive early and, in fact, try to arrive the day before — unless you’re just outside the path — and preferably two days before.”
People should try to be as self-sufficient as possible, he said. Bring tents, sleeping bags, food, water and toilet paper, he said.
Most hotels inside the path are booked, but there may be other options, he said.
“I get emails every day from farmers or landowners that tell me ‘I’ve got this piece of land that I’m going to set up as a temporary campground,’ ” he said. “So there are going to be a lot of pop-up camping sites for the eclipse.”
Nebraska is attractive to eclipse chasers because of its good highway system and favorable weather in the western half, he said. A 225-mile stretch of Interstate 80, between Lincoln and North Platte, lies within the totality zone.
To create the maps, Zeiler estimated that a person living 200 miles away would have a .5 percent to 2 percent probability of driving into the path of totality. For people living 400 miles away, he cut that probability in half. He halved it again for those 800 miles away.
He said he is scheduled to meet with transportation officials from several states in a few weeks to help them plan.
He said transportation officials, including those in Nebraska, have looked at his numbers and consider them plausible.
“Now, nobody can be a hundred percent certain about my results, because there’s some intangibles that are just about impossible to quantify,” he said. “But this is the best estimate that I can make with the geographic data that I have.”
Officials with the Nebraska Department of Transportation have looked at his estimates.
Trouble is, the numbers are only estimates, said Jeni Lautenschlager, the department’s communication services manager. Nobody really knows how many people are going to show up, she said.
“We know there’s going to be a lot of cars,” she said.
That could particularly be true along I-80, she said. But what if a big storm blocks the view that day? Will Nebraskans be driving to Wyoming or Missouri instead? That’s a question impossible to predict right now.
The department plans to use its 511 road conditions phone system, alert signs, an app and a special website to keep motorists informed, she said.
“We anticipate using our dynamic message boards over the Interstate to help communicate that day so as people are driving down they at least can look up on a sign and say ‘Oh, yes, eclipse is coming today,’ so at least they’re somewhat prepared for it if they aren’t already notified of it,” she said.
The department is hoping, however, that people plan ahead and don’t pull off on the Interstate shoulder to watch, Lautenschlager said.
John Ricks, executive director of the Nebraska Tourism Commission, said Zeiler’s estimate is the only one he’s seen on potential visitors.
“We have been keeping the pulse anecdotally talking to people,” Ricks said. “But I’m pretty sure if you did a survey of hotels anywhere near that midline — if you called hotels across the state — there’s nothing available.”
Zeiler said a total solar eclipse is “absolutely the most spectacular phenomenon you can see in nature.”
“You really can’t prepare yourself for the magnificent sight,” he said. “It’s like nothing you’ve seen before in your life. It’s as if for a couple of minutes you’ve been transported to an alien surface, because it just looks so different.”
The next solar eclipse to hit the United States will be on April 8, 2024. Its path runs from Texas to Maine, clipping the southern ends of Missouri and Illinois. It won’t go through Nebraska, so it will be Nebraskans’ turn to travel.