'Your vision is worth more than a single event:' Astronomer stresses solar eclipse safety

Many people will be turning their eyes to the skies to watch the upcoming solar eclipse, but there can be serious dangers if you don’t do it correctly.

The upcoming eclipse is worth the watch, but do it safely, says Scott Young

On Monday, a dark shadow will cross over North America in what’s billed as an once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse. (David Gray/Reuters)

Many people will be turning their eyes to the skies to watch the upcoming solar eclipse, but there can be serious dangers if you don't do it correctly.

Scott Young, an astronomer at the Manitoba Museum Planetarium, said there are major concerns about sub-par eclipse viewers landing in people's hands ahead of Monday's total solar eclipse.

"When the eclipse became very popular, people started basically making cheap glasses with substandard film in them and that basically doesn't block out he important wavelengths of light — the ultraviolet, the infrared, stuff like that — that's the stuff that can really damage your eyes permanently," Young said.

Earlier in the week, Amazon warned customers that they may have bought defective knockoff glasses on its website. The company also removed listings for some of the glasses, but did not say which brands.

The company warned that even if glasses come with a stamp claiming they meet International Organization for Standardization safety requirements, they could be fakes.

Young said if you got your glasses through the Manitoba Museum or an optometrist you are safe, but if you went for a different option it is best to check because "your vision is worth more than a single event."

"Basically you want to take a look through it and if you can see anything other than the sun or perhaps really, really bright lights, that's no good," Young said.

"If it just seems like sunglasses, where you just sort of have a darkened view of things, then probably the film in your solar-filter glasses is not up to standard."

The danger doesn't come from looking at the eclipse; totality — when the sun is covered by the moon — is the one time it's safe to look. But since we won't see totality in Manitoba, if you're watching the eclipse you're basically just staring at the sun, which is where the danger comes from.

Around 1 p.m., the sun will be about 71% eclipsed in Winnipeg in a crescent-moon shape. 

"Unless you're looking at the sun with solar glasses, you might not even notice that anything is happening. It's not going to be much darker, it's really not going to affect the environment around you very much, although I guess the temperature will go down a little bit — it will be a couple degrees cooler."

A Manitoba astronomer is warning people about counterfeit solar eclipse glasses. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Young also warns the damage the sun can do to your eyes can also impact your camera lens.

"Your camera is delicate like your eye is delicate. You don't want to point it at the sun and zoom in and fry your camera chip either," he said, adding people can put a safe filter overtop their lens.

Young is headed to Grand Island, Neb., to have the full eclipse experience. He said it's important to take precautions but it could be a life-changing view, as it was when he saw his first eclipse as a child.

"In 1979 my school class was all kept inside in the gym where there were no windows. But I called in sick and stayed home and because I saw that eclipse that's why I'm an astronomer today," he said.

"I think events like this are really important because they show everybody that the universe around us is vast and mysterious and exciting and there are all sorts of discoveries to be made. And that's the curiosity that drives people to go into science," he added.