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Helen Young – Reflecting on the 1999 UK solar eclipse

Helen Young (right) with presenter Philippa Forrester (left)

Helen Young (right) with presenter Philippa Forrester (left)


Helen Young
Meteorologist

Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 15:36 GMT -

Meteorologist Helen Young shares her memories of the previous major solar eclipse in the UK. Helen will be observing the eclipse on Friday with The Weather Network UK at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

The last significant and full eclipse to be seen in mainland UK was 11th August 1999 and I was asked by the BBC Weather Centre to be part of the BBC’s Total Eclipse Live show in Cornwall.

You can imagine my delight at being able to witness firsthand this natural phenomenon, so rarely seen in the UK (it was the first total eclipse in the UK for nearly 100 years and the next one won’t be until 2090 – not in my lifetime!)

I was asked to present the weather forecast for the time of the eclipse early in the morning. Only this time the map wasn’t behind me in a TV studio; it was laid out on the beach – a huge green UK map. We went to the beach in Cornwall because southwest England was where totality (the point where the sun is totally obscured by the moon) could be viewed. Elsewhere in the UK, it was only a partial eclipse.

I remember arriving on the beach very early in the morning, full of anticipation. There was a sunrise to witness, as the cloud at this stage was well broken. However it was a red sunrise that foretold the weather to come (red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning). The shepherd was right, by 7.30am the sun was fast disappearing behind clouds and that’s how it remained for the day. It was at about this time that I had to set up the weather symbols on the giant map laid out on the beach. I had huge weather symbols about 50cm across; clouds, sun and large raindrops. As it happened, the sun symbols didn’t get much of a look in as it was generally very cloudy, especially for the southwest of England.

I remember, vividly, having to deliver the weather forecast live on BBC 1 as I walked around the map, talking about the symbols – all delivered in about 45 seconds! I was really annoyed that the skies were so leaden. So many people were going to be disappointed at not being able to see the eclipse at all. Some people travelled hundreds of miles to reach Cornwall to experience the spectacle.

It was the only forecast I delivered in my 12 years that really upset me at being proved right. Fortunately an RAF Hercules filmed the eclipse from above the cloud layers and enabled us all to have pictures of the eclipse for posterity.

Under the thick cloud cover it was already cold and it gradually became damp with fine drizzle. By about 9.45am it really started to rain and everyone on the beach tried to find shelter or huddle under umbrellas. The beach was full of people by this stage with the Radio 1 roadshow not far away. I was given a yellow fisherman’s hat to wear by one of the producers – not very fetching! Before I knew it I was on air again with Philippa Forrester (BBC’s Tomorrow’s World) talking about the weather experiments we were conducting on the beach.

First contact (when the moon first bites into the sun) was due just before 10am. Miraculously, five minutes into the eclipse, it started to turn drier – although the cloud remained in layers shielding the sun throughout the day. From about 11 am I started to notice that the light level was changing. Having never witnessed an eclipse before, all I had been told was that it would get dark. In fact it was a far more gradual process. It got darker but not pitch dark. As the moon’s shadow band is very narrow you always see the light on the horizon even with a total eclipse. Just before totality at 11.11am, it got much darker (like a dimmer switch being turned down) and stayed that way for the duration of totality (two minutes and six seconds). It was like a wall of darkness heading towards me. After two minutes the shadow passed and the light gradually returned.

The noise from the crowd on the beach was incredible; cheering and whooping with camera flashes going off everywhere. I remember wondering what the experience would feel like in the middle of nowhere with no noise. Would I then understand how people in a bygone age regarded eclipses with a great deal of fear, seeing them as a manifestation of divine anger from above?

Despite the somewhat persistent cloud cover it was amazing. A once in a lifetime experience of an awe inspiring natural phenomenon, and one that I won’t forget. It’s for that reason that I’m so pleased to be witnessing the partial eclipse in London this Friday with The Weather Network.

Let’s hope the clouds are kinder to us this time, although nature as always will have the last say!

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