Mapping the Eclipse for a Citizen Science Project

Map of the continental United States showing the amateur radio grids and path of the eclipse.  Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).
Map of the continental United States showing the amateur radio grids and path of the eclipse. Image credit: Bill Mitchell (CC-BY).

During the solar eclipse next week, I will be at the Science Museum of Minnesota with a citizen science project studying the effects of the eclipse on radio propagation. While there are many radio-related projects going on—the most accessible being a study of AM radio reception—I will be using amateur radio to make contacts and provide reception reports during the eclipse. One of the important pieces of information that will be exchanged with other amateur stations is a “grid”, which is a shorthand for rough latitude and longitude.

Amateur radio grids are 2° longitude by 1° latitude, and represented with pairs of letters and numbers. For instance, the Science Museum of Minnesota is located in EN34. Fields (20°x10°) are designated with letters, and increase from -180 longitude and -90 latitude (AA) to 160 longitude and 80 latitude (RR). Fields are further subdivided into grids using numbers, which increase from 00 at the southwest corner to 99 at the northeast. Looking again at our example, the first character, E, indicates a location between 100° and 80° W longitude, and N indicates a location between 40° and 50° N latitude. The numbers provide further refinement on that range. The 3 means the longitude is between 6° and 8° east of the west edge of the field (i.e. 94°–92° W), and the 4 after it means the latitude is 4°–5° north of the south edge of the field (i.e. 44°–45° N). Further letters (A-X) and numbers can be used to specify locations more precisely in a similar fashion. Longitude is always indicated first, and increases west-to-east; latitude is indicated second, increasing south-to-north.

For the event, I want to have a map of the continental US and southern Canada with the grids outlined on it. During the event as we hear which grid other stations are in, we can mark their location on the map. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a map that I wanted to use for this purpose, so I decided to make my own with QGIS.

For my eclipse map, I needed to gather a few datasets. First and foremost, I needed a US state map. Canadian provinces were also a high priority. Once I had those, I was still missing Mexico and other North American areas, so I found a world map as well. That covered the basics, but as long as I’m making a special map for the eclipse, I wanted to have the path of totality, which I found from NASA. I unzipped each of those files into a folder for my eclipse grid map project.

In QGIS, I loaded all the datasets (vectors). The Canadian provinces were in a different projection, so I saved (converted) it to the projection I wanted (EPSG:4269), which is a simple latitude-longitude projection. I found that the Canadian provinces included detailed coastlines and islands, so I simplified it (Vector | Geometry Tools | Simplify Geometry) using a tolerance of 0.01 or something like that. The islands cleaned up a little, but the overall shapes didn’t change much.

With the datasets loaded, I needed to make my field and grid boundaries. Using the grid tool (Vector | Research Tools | Vector Grid) I created the field grid (xmin=-180, xmax=180, ymin=-90, ymax=90, parameter x=20, parameter y=10) and the fine grid (same except parameter x=2, parameter y=1).

I looked up the coordinates for the Science Museum of Minnesota, and put them into a CSV text file. By loading in that CSV file, I put a star on the map where I will be located.

From that point, it was just a matter of adjusting colors and display properties. I gave reasonable, light colors to the US and Canada, and thickened the borders for the US states. I used a dashed line for the field lines, and a lighter grey dotted line for the smaller grids. The eclipse path I made a partially-transparent grey.

That’s about all there was to it! In the print composer I added in some of the labels for a few grids to help demonstrate the letter/number scheme.

Results (PDF): 8.5″x11″, 11″x17″.