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Borrego Springs Dark Sky Community

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 7

Thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I have received a traveling fellowship to visit all of the International Dark Sky Places in North America between 22 August and 03 October 2011. This series of blog posts will detail my visit to each of these very dark places.

Borrego Springs, Dark Sky Community

The final stop on my dark sky places odyssey was the desert community of Borrego Springs in southern California, smack bang in the centre of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in the “lower 48” states.

In 2008 the IDA designated Borrego Springs as an International Dark Sky Community, the second in the world after Flagstaff, and the first in California. This designation recognises the fact that the night sky above Borrego is very dark indeed (considering that they are less than 100 miles from the suburbs of Los Angeles) as well as the community-led efforts to minimise the effects of light pollution.

Aurora above Borrego Springs, by Dennis Mammana

The town was settled in the 1930s, and there is a small community there still (pop 2500 ish) that live in Borrego Springs year-round. However the soaring summer temperatures (May – Sep the average high temp is above 38°C, and can reach as high as 49°C in mid summer) mean that many residents only winter there from Oct till Apr.

The town’s main economy is tourism, with four golf courses, an annual wildflowers display, and winter migrating birds all attracting tourists to the pleasant 20°C average mid winter temperatures. Dark skies tourism is starting to flourish in the town, with the Nightfall festival in its 18th year, and many other tourism businesses are starting to take note of the potential to expand their winter season.

The IDA even have a credit card featuring an image of Borrego Springs

During my visit to Borrego Springs the dark skies coalition, chaired by Betsy Knaak of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, asked me to host a workshop for local tourism businesses, as well as a public evening talk (both were sold out), and a school talk to over 120 primary school kids. The interest in dark skies from across the community it staggering.

Indeed of all the places I have visited on this traveling fellowship, Borrego Springs reminds me most of the model for dark skies tourism that works so well back home in the UK’s dark sky places, such as Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, and Sark Dark Sky Island. That is: the designation is achieved by a local group of activists; the local tourism businesses then use the dark skies to attract visitors in the “off-season”; and the astronomy activities are run by a small group of local astronomers. In the case of Borrego Springs their go-to guy for dark sky tourism events is the astronomer, writer and photographer Dennis Mammana.

I was lucky enough to go stargazing with Dennis and take some photos of the night sky. The evening when we were out was far from ideal: often a marine layer sits over San Diego and blocks out much of its light but on this evening the light domes of this city, and others, were evident.

Dennis was almost apologetic, comparing their skies unfavourably with some of the other incredibly dark places I had visited on my trip, but the comparison is unfair. Borrego Springs is not in the middle of nowhere; it’s a mere two hours drive away from Los Angeles, southern California, and north-west Mexico, with tens of millions of people within easy reach of a stunning night sky.

I obtained an SQM reading of 20.25, admittedly not as dark as the other places I had monitored on my trip, but still very dark, and the IDA recognises that a Dark Sky Place needs an exceptional night sky relative to the population that it serves, which in the case of southern California is a huge population.

The opportunities for Borrego Springs are huge, and I hope that what they are doing will feed back to what we’re trying to achieve in the UK, and vice versa, as a perfect model for dark sky tourism.

All-sky image above Borrego Springs

In the image above, the light dome in the top of the image (SE) is from the large city of Mexicali. The light dome in the lower right of the image (N) is from Palm Springs, the light in the lower part of the image (NW) is from Los Angeles, and the light in the left hand side of the image (SW) is from San Diego.

  1. October 3, 2011 at 05:21

    Steve– It was my pleasure to meet you and to hear you speak. You’re a terrific representative for dark skies, and I hope our paths cross many times in the future!

    –Dennis M.

    • October 3, 2011 at 05:32

      Thanks Dennis. It was a genuine pleasure meeting you, and if you’re serious about coming out to Scotland let’s email each other about it and I’ll see what I can arrange.

  2. Alex Brownstein
    October 3, 2011 at 06:42

    Does the aurora make it impossible to see the Milky Way? It’s a shame: the two put together would be an incredibly dramatic display!

  3. October 7, 2011 at 22:36

    The aurora can easily become bright enough to wipe out the Milky Way… in fact, sometimes bright enough to cast a shadow. Visually one might see them together, but photographically it might be tough. Exposures short enough to not overexpose the aurora would not pick up the MW, and exposures long enough to pick up the MW would often blow out the lights. I’ll be in AK in a few months again and will see if I can capture the two together.

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