Environment: Cornwall frets about darkness at noon

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The Independent Online
Darkness at noon isn't just a book title for Cornwall County Council. It is what will happen there on 11 August 1999 - the UK's last total solar eclipse until 2090. And Cornwall is worried. Charles Arthur, Science Editor, explains why.

In the past few thousand years solar eclipses have often been accompanied by panic. The disappearance of the Sun - as the Moon passes in front of it - has been seen as an omen presaging awful events and divine wrath.

Cornwall County Council, mindful of what can happen, has already begun preparing for the likely effects of August 1999. While divine wrath is low down in the list of expectations, there are some certain predictions: hotels and campsites will overflow, roads will get blocked and tempers will fray as people travel from all around the world to see the two minutes of "totality" at around 12.10pm on the 11th. And they'll all leave a lot of litter.

More worryingly, many of the sunwatchers may damage their eyesight by trying to view the eclipse without adequate eye protection. Of less concern is that streetlights with sensors may turn on automatically as "darkness" falls.

Yesterday, the council held a summit to try to predict what the human and economic effects of the eclipse will be. "It is clear we must begin our preparations now," said Steve Winston, the county's emergency planning officer. "By rehearsing potential problems we will ensure maximum safety for everyone, and the maximum benefits for Cornwall."

The council has applied for pounds 50,000 in European funding to help it deal with the influx. The forecast is that up to a million people will crowd into the county. Hotels near Land's End have been booked up for some years by groups who tour the world to observe eclipses. Some local gossip has suggested that room rates for those dates are moving rapidly skywards.

The event will be the only total eclipse visible in Britain in most of our lifetimes. The last was in northern England in 1927; the next will affect London in 2090. In 1999, any part of Cornwall south of a line between Camelford and Launceston will have a partial eclipse, as will Devon as far as Torbay. However, the "totality", in which only the sun's fiery corona can be seen, will be best seen in west Cornwall, from Penzance to Falmouth.

Traffic snarl-ups are likely to be a major problem. In 1991, Mexico's preparations for an eclipse included a ban on traffic movements for half an hour, enforced by 1,000 police and 10 helicopters. Cornwall has more road miles than any other county, and many of them are narrow and easily blocked. That in itself could pose a problem for the emergency services.

Still, the logistical problems posed by modern-day eclipses are very different in character from those of the past. In 1560, the announcement in France of a forthcoming eclipse led to widespread panic as people thought it meant an imminent day of divine reckoning and began fighting for a place in the queue for the confessional.