Just How Rare is a Solar Eclipse?—A Statistical Comparison for the Gambling Mind

Witnessing any eclipse is a rare treat, and total solar eclipses are the rarest of all. Just how rare? Well, you’re a little more likely to witness one at random than win the lottery, but the odds aren’t as different as you might expect.

For those fortunate enough to witness a planetary peep show, the experience often inspires awe and a sense of good fortune. So, it’s no surprise brick-and-mortar casinos located along the path of Monday’s total solar eclipse are hosting viewing parties—gamblers tend to court extra luck.

That said, you’d have to be extraordinarily lucky to catch a glimpse of one without planning and travel. Staying put and without the help of astronomical forecasting, many could spend entire lives watching the sky without ever seeing a total eclipse—or even its sibling, an annular eclipse.

How likely you are to see one in your lifetime depends on where you live. Some spots in the US are due for several in the coming decades. Others won’t see the Sun and Moon line up overhead for many centuries.

Celestial Alignment Rare but Predictable

Using NASA’s definition, an eclipse is an “alignment of celestial bodies so that one is obscured, either partially or totally, by the other.”

A solar eclipse occurs when the new moon travels between the Earth and the Sun, casting its shadow back to Earth. From the ground, the moon seems to blot out the sun—a little or a lot—depending on the viewer’s location and the type of eclipse. If things align just right and the Moon is close enough to the Earth to obscure the Sun completely, that’s a total solar eclipse, the rarest kind.

An annual solar eclipse is similar, but with the Moon a little further away in its orbit. That means its apparent size isn’t enough to block out the Sun entirely. The result is a “ring of fire” around the moon as it passes.

Any kind of solar eclipse is harder to witness than a lunar eclipse—in which the Earth casts a shadow on the Moon. They occur with similar frequency, but every lunar eclipse can be seen from anywhere on Earth as long as the Moon is in the sky. To see a total or annular solar eclipse, you have to be right in the path of the shadow.

These days, we have the technology to predict each eclipse and where you need to be to see it. But, before modern technology, being in the right place at the right time was a matter of luck, and many people would go their whole lives without having it happen to them.

Seeing Random Solar Eclipse Almost Like Lotto Win

To get a handle on just how lucky you’d have to be to witness an eclipse at random, we looked at 4500 years worth of historical eclipses and future forecasts.

The question we asked is:

If you looked up at the sky at a random moment, at a random place in the US, what are the odds there’d be a total or annual solar eclipse happening?

The EclipseWise database covers eclipses from 1499 BC to 3000 AD. Those 4500 years equate to 2.4 billion minutes. For most places in the US, the number of minutes of total or annular eclipse over that period turns out to be around 120 to 130 minutes.

That means that, without the benefit of astronomical projections, if you just looked up at the sky at any random moment, your chances of seeing a total or annular eclipse would be slightly better than 1 in 20 million.

For comparison, the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 292 million. 

So, if you bought 14 Powerball tickets, your odds of winning would be about the same as finding yourself in the path of an eclipse as you leave the store.

Here are some other comparisons:

  • Randomly witnessing an eclipse is less likely than getting dealt five blackjacks in a row but more likely than getting six.
  • Looking up to see an eclipse is about as likely as getting the same result on twenty-five consecutive coin flips.

A Once-in-Five-Lifetimes Opportunity

There are several solar eclipses most years—2.4 on average, with five being the maximum possible. But not all are total eclipses, and each is only visible across a narrow band of the Earth.

Total solar eclipses every 18 months on average. However, whether you get to see the show depends on your location and the path of totality—where the eclipse is 100% visible. Viewers inside the path get the whole show, while those outside only get a partial view or none at all.

Although there are some exceptions, from any one place, a total solar eclipse is only visible about once in 400 years. That makes it an event that occurs about once in five lifetimes, at current US life expectancy.

That’s if you stay put, of course. Most people will have a few opportunities to see one if they’re willing to travel a little. At the bottom of this article, you’ll find a table of upcoming eclipses for the 50 US state capitals, plus DC and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As you’ll see, some will get snubbed, like Juneau, Phoenix, Honolulu, and Springfield, which won’t see a single total or annular eclipse in the next century. Others will have multiple opportunities. Topping the list is Salt Lake City, Utah. With three eclipses totaling 1105 seconds of total or annular obfuscation, residents are over six times as likely as the average American to encounter one randomly in the coming century.

Solar Eclipses Throughout US History

Prior to the upcoming celestial show, the last time a total solar eclipse blessed the Lower 48 was in 2017. Before that, it was 1979. And it will be 2045 before another total solar eclipse traverses the US from coast to coast.

Although the orbits of the Earth and Moon are predictable, they don’t line up according to a regular pattern. Some places will see clusters of total eclipses during one century, then go several without another. For instance, one section of the southern US that got a show in 2017 will again be in the path of totality for Monday’s eclipse.

By contrast, the last time New Yorkers saw a total solar eclipse in 1925, construction on the Empire State Building had yet to break ground. Additionally, according to the Washington Post, San Diego last experienced a total eclipse of the sun in 1923, while Chicago‘s been dry since 1806. But when it comes to lacking eclipse experiences, folks living near Tuscon, AZ, are America’s unluckiest. The last time a total solar eclipse graced the area was in the year 797.

Despite having an average of about seven total solar eclipses each century, some areas of the US mainland have witnessed as many more. For folks in the Midwest, total solar eclipses are more common. Conversely, the region west of Minneapolis had only four in the last four millennia.

From Bad Omens to Eclipse Viewing Parties

At the very least, each contiguous state and parts of Alaska and Hawaii will experience a partial event during Monday’s approaching solar spectacle. However, destinations along the path of totality between Mexico and Newfoundland will get the VIP show.

According to NASA, the US path starts in Texas and continues through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine follow. Additionally, tiny parts of Tennessee and Michigan will experience the total eclipse on its way to Eastern Canada and the Atlantic Ocean.

As noted above, several casinos are hosting eclipse viewing parties to celebrate the auspicious celestial event, including the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino.

Interestingly, while many witnesses in the modern West report feeling awed, lucky, or blessed after experiencing an eclipse, many early people saw eclipses as bad omens. Others have considered an eclipse a symbol of a romantic connection or a lover quarreling. On the other hand, and more fitting for a casino connection, Bohemia’s minors believed an eclipse foretold fortune finding gold.

Despite the mixed mythology, most US online casinos have at least one online slot with “eclipse” in the name. That said, neither of the two we demoed—Lightning Eclipse nor Midnight Eclipse—had much to do with the phenomena beyond their titles.

Total & Annular Solar Eclipses for US State Capitals—Next 100 Years

State City Total/Annular Eclipses in Next 100 Years Total Duration (Seconds) Odds at Any Moment
Alabama Montgomery 2 706 1 in 4.5 million
Alaska Juneau 0 0 Nil
Arizona Phoenix 0 0 Nil
Arkansas Little Rock 2 634 1 in 5.0 million
California Sacramento 1 72 1 in 44 million
Colorado Denver 0 0 Nil
Connecticut Hartford 1 175 1 in 18 million
Delaware Dover 1 542 1 in 5.8 million
Florida Tallahassee 2 614 1 in 5.1 million
Georgia Atlanta 1 340 1 in 9.3 million
Hawaii Honolulu 0 0 Nil
Idaho Boise 2 714 1 in 4.4 million
Iowa Des Moines 1 298 1 in 11 million
Kansas Topeka 0 0 Nil
Kentucky Frankfort 1 152 1 in 21 million
Louisiana Baton Rouge 1 340 1 in 9.3 million
Maine Augusta 0 0 Nil
Maryland Annapolis 1 542 1 in 5.8 million
Massachusetts Boston 1 175 1 in 18 million
Michigan Lansing 2 660 1 in 4.8 million
Minnesota St. Paul 3 707 1 in 4.5 million
Mississippi Jackson 1 366 1 in 8.6 million
Missouri Jefferson City 1 152 1 in 21 million
Montana Helena 0 0 Nil
Nebraska Lincoln 1 298 1 in 11 million
Nevada Carson City 1 72 1 in 44 million
New Hampshire Concord 1 175 1 in 18 million
New Jersey Trenton 1 175 1 in 18 million
New Mexico Santa Fe 1 474 1 in 6.7 million
New York Albany 0 0 Nil
North Carolina Raleigh 1 340 1 in 9.3 million
North Dakota Bismarck 2 791 1 in 4.0 million
Ohio Columbus 2 629 1 in 5.0 million
Oklahoma Oklahoma City 1 366 1 in 8.6 million
Oregon Salem 2 739 1 in 4.3 million
Pennsylvania Harrisburg 0 0 Nil
Rhode Island Providence 1 175 1 in 18 million
South Carolina Columbia 1 340 1 in 9.3 million
South Dakota Pierre 1 227 1 in 14 million
Tennessee Nashville 0 0 Nil
Texas Austin 2 742 1 in 4.3 million
Utah Salt Lake City 3 1105 1 in 2.9 million
Vermont Montpelier 2 579 1 in 5.5 million
Washington Olympia 1 265 1 in 12 million
West Virginia Charlston 1 152 1 in 21 million
Wisconsin Madison 3 958 1 in 3.3 million
Wyoming Cheyenne 0 0 Nil
D.C. Washington 1 542 1 in 5.8 million
Puerto Rico San Juan 0 0 Nil

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