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Climate

The Super Bowl for Meteorologists

With a total solar eclipse on its way — the last one visible from the U.S. in the next 20 years — millions are asking: What will the weather be?

A crystal ball eclipse.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

On December 14, 2020, at a little past 1 p.m., meteorologist Matthew Cappucci sat down in the middle of a random field near the Chilean-Argentinian border and cried because it was cloudy.

“To say I was devastated would be an understatement,” he told me.

Cappucci had traveled from his home in Washington, D.C., to Pucón, Chile, to experience a total solar eclipse, only to be denied by an atmospheric river. Under normal circumstances, he could have driven into Argentina, where there were clear skies on the other side of the Andes, but COVID travel restrictions were still in place and the border was closed. His long months of planning and excitement, all dashed by a couple last-minute rain clouds.

All that is to say, Cappucci understands better than most the importance of making an immaculate eclipse-day forecast. In less than a week, millions of Americans will flood the 115-mile-wide, 15-state-long path of totality for the country’s last total solar eclipse until 2044. As they do so, they’ll be relying on the predictions of local and national meteorologists like Cappucci, an atmospheric scientist at MyRadar and the Capitol Weather Gang. “I will say that I’ve never personally been more stressed about an event, nor been looking forward to something as much,” Cappucci told me.

Weather teams across the country have been preparing for April 8, 2024, since as early as 2017, when the last American total solar eclipse occurred. There was a noticeable giddiness among the meteorologists I spoke to; it’s fairly unusual for the public to have a high level of interest in a forecast that isn’t potentially life-threatening. “It’ll be really fun to get to be out there and not have to be in a raincoat or have things flying through the air,” Alex Wilson, an on-air meteorologist at The Weather Channel, joked to me.

But as Cappucci alluded to, there is also an elevated sense of responsibility. Every local weather website in or near the path of totality I checked last week already had information about the eclipse-day forecast on its homepage. National publications like The Washington Post, meanwhile, are publishing new explainers, live maps, and opinion pieces daily in the lead-up to the event. Wilson told me The Weather Channel will have “a bunch of teams” stationed from Texas all the way along the path of totality to Maine; she’ll personally be on hand in Dallas for the station’s Celestron telescope live stream from Love Field.

Cappucci and the rest of the small MyRadar team are also planning to head to Texas for their coverage, which is shaping up to include a live stream and an “Eclipse Week” package that started Monday. (The company has also been giving away MyRadar-branded eclipse glasses in the lead-up to the event.) This time, Cappucci has thought of everything; he even has a StarLink subscription to ensure that the team can maintain internet connectivity if it ends up reporting from a remote corner of the state.

Fox Weather, meanwhile, has 120 meteorologists under its national, regional, and local umbrella, and has been planning its own solar eclipse package since October’s annular eclipse over Texas. The finer details were still coming together last week when I spoke to Fox meteorologist Stephen Morgan, who is based in New York City and will be anchoring from Dallas. But at a minimum, the network plans to have correspondents on air in 10 cities along the path of totality, stretching from Eagle Pass on the Mexican border to Burlington, Vermont. “We’re excited,” Morgan told me, “but I think the elephant in the room is the fact that this is happening in the month of April, which is a very tough month when it comes to forecasting.”

Joe Rao, a longtime television meteorologist and an umbraphile who has seen 13 total solar eclipses, was even more blunt when I asked him what local weather teams would be grappling with this week. “Out of the 12 months of the year, April is probably the worst month to have an eclipse,” he told me.

April is a transitional month in North America, seasonally-speaking. It is a time when severe weather begins to ramp up; it’s the second busiest month for tornadoes. The continent’s three major west-to-east storm paths also become more active. And in places like Texas, which experts said would have the best chance of anywhere in the nation for clear skies on eclipse day, you can still get a south wind that brings moisture off the Gulf of Mexico, giving clouds a chance to develop.

Houston-based Fox meteorologist Aaron Barker is keenly aware of this. He’s been sharing radar models for Central Texas on Twitter and, as of now, the region is looking pretty dicey for cloud cover next week. Like Morgan and Cappucci, though, he said the pressure to get this particular forecast right is intense. “It’s obviously less serious than a hurricane or something like that, but the importance of the forecast for a lot of people is still very, very high,” he told me.

Ironically, that’s also part of the problem; because of the danger of storms like hurricanes and tornadoes, we’ve gotten pretty good at seeing them coming. “The science has improved remarkably over the years trying to hone in on those threats, but cloud cover — my word. That’s a tough one,” Morgan said. Clouds alone aren’t usually a life or death situation. But for people spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to chase a rare celestial phenomenon, the stakes can start to feel that high.

Cappucci gets it: “I’ve done a million kajillion tornadoes, hurricanes, the Northern Lights, the whole nine yards,” he said. “Simply nothing compares to a total solar eclipse.” As he explained, the “most important thing” you can see during an eclipse is the corona — the silvery atmosphere of the sun visible around the moon that “looks like the hairs of an angel because they’re glowing and radiating out into space.” To see it, though, you need clear skies. “Even some high cirrus clouds — yeah, they’re a nuisance, but you can still see some stuff,” Cappucci went on. “But to get overcast rain is really a showstopper.”

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Barker has been seeing on his radar models for most of Texas, and local meteorology teams in Dallas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas have begun to dampen expectations. Wilson, the Weather Channel meteorologist, admitted that she’s a little “nervous” while cautioning that it’s still early for such predictions. Meanwhile, upstate New York and Vermont, which have the worst records of clear skies this time of year, are shaping up to have the best show in the country.

Rao, the longtime eclipse-chaser, has only been clouded out at two of his 13 experiences. (If you believe in luck, note that he plans to watch this one somewhere upstate.) He has tried to calm some of the panic around the possibility of cloud cover, explaining to me that “it’s not like you’re not going to experience anything” if the sky is overcast on April 8. During one of his cloud-outs, at his first eclipse in Quebec in 1972, he watched the sky go from “battleship gray to weird colorations of saffron and pink. At one point, it was like I was looking at the clouds through the inside of a beer bottle or an iodine bottle.”

Of course, pretty clouds are just consolation; everyone wants perfect viewing conditions. The National Weather Service has even started to post a little jingle alongside its daily cloud-cover updates: “Totality or bust, check the forecast and adjust!” The meteorologists I spoke to universally agreed that they won’t start to put too much stock in the cloud models until Wednesday or Thursday at the earliest.

Wilson said she personally won’t feel confident in the hourly models until at least three or four days out, and even then, you never really know. It was overcast when she was covering the annular eclipse in San Antonio in October and “everybody was kind of freaking out. Then, about 20 minutes before eclipse time, it cleared out.”

That is the annoying truth of modern meteorology: Not even the best computers, radars, almanacs, or atmospheric scientists can predict whether a stray cloud will wander in front of the sun in the minutes before totality.

“I’m just really hoping that April doesn’t do April things and that weather-wise, it cooperates,” Morgan said. “But April is full of surprises — and clouds.”

Yellow

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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