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Borrego Springs Dark Sky Community

October 3, 2011 4 comments

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.

Flagstaff: The World’s First Dark Sky City

October 2, 2011 2 comments

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 6

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.

Flagstaff, International Dark Sky City

Flagstaff is a city with a long connection to astronomy. It was dubbed “the Skylight City” in the 1890s, and the Lowell Observatory, cited on Mars Hill just west of the town, was established in 1894. Six decades later the United States Naval Observatory was set up five miles outside the town. As a result, light pollution has long been a concern in Flagstaff.

Flagstaff: the World's First International Dark Sky City

In fact, in 1958 Flagstaff adopted the first lighting ordinances to prevent the rapid deterioration of the night sky for astronomical research. This ordinance is worth printing in full:

ORDINANCE NO. 440
AN ORDINANCE DEFINING SEARCH LIGHTS IN THE CITY OF FLAGSTAFF, PROHIBITING THE USE OF CERTAIN COMMERCIAL SEARCH LIGHTS IN THE CITY LIMITS OF FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA AND PRESCRIBING A PENALTY THEREFOR AND DEC THEREFOR AND DECLARING AN EMERGENCY

BE IT ORDAINED by the Mayor and Common Council of the City of Flagstaff as follows, to-wit:

1. It is hereby declared to be unlawful for any person or persons to operate within the City Limits of the City of Flagstaff any incandescent or arc-type search light, beacon light or similar lighting device designed to and capable or projecting a beam of light into the sky for a distance of an excess of one half (1/2) mile.
2. The provisions of this Ordinance shall not apply to emergency search lights or beacons or search lights or beacons pursuant to public authority.
3. The provisions of this Ordinance shall not be construed to prohibit the use of short-range open type, wide angle stationary floodlights not capable of projecting a beam of light in excess of one half (1/2) mile.
4. Any person violating any provisions of this Ordinance shall be guilty of’ a misdemeanor and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine of’ not to exceed $300.00 or imprisonment in the City Jail not to exceed (90) days, or both such fine and punishment.
5. In order to protect and preserve the public health, safety, and welfare, it is necessary that this Ordinance become immediately effective and it is hereby declared to be an emergency measure to become effective upon posting and publishing according to law.
PASSED AND ADOPTED by the Mayor and Common Council of the City of Flagstaff’, this 15th, day of April, 1958.

Thirty years later astronomer Chris Luginbuhl led new, comprehensive city- and county-wide ordinances. Ever since then a dedicated and enthusiastic team of community activists have been combating the increasing problem of light pollution that comes with an expanding city.

Today’s dark sky defenders are the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition (founded in 1999), many of whom I met on my two visits to the city, including two leading lights in the fight for dark skies, Dark Skies Coalition founders astronomer Chris Luginbuhl and community organiser Lance Diskan.

Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition spread the word

Indeed Lance moved to Flagstaff so that his children – born in Los Angeles – could see the stars: “One of the things we required when we had children was that they be able to see the stars,” he says. “We wanted them to have the unlimited imaginative potential that comes from looking at the stars. Part of being human is looking up at the stars and being awestruck.” Lance has completed a masters thesis entitled: “The Night Sky in Human Culture”.

Flagstaff was awarded International Dark Sky Community (IDSC) status by the IDA in October 2001, and indeed it was Flagstaff’s unique history of lighting controls that inspired the IDA to form this designation in the first place. It wasn’t for another five years that the IDSParks programme expanded the family of dark sky places into larger parks.

During my two visits to Flagstaff in my traveling fellowship (on 8-10 Sep and again on 23-24 Sep) I met with members of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition, learned of the community activism, was given a night-time tour of the good (and the still-present bad) lighting, visited Lowell Observatory, went stargazing and saw the Milky Way in a city centre (!), took a day-trip to the nearby Meteor Crater, and attended the opening night of the 2011 Celebration of the Night.

Meteor Crater through a fisheye lens

The latter is the fourth such event, which seeks to promote dark skies across a wide range of events and programmes, The opening event I attended was the public unveiling of the excellent Nightscapes IV exhibition of artworks inspired by the night, and by dark skies.

Throughout my visits I got a real sense that Flagstaff is leading the world, not just in lighting controls, but in engaging the local communities in the city to make them feel ownership of the wonderful resource they have overhead every clear night.

The fact that I could see the Milky Way from a small park in the middle of a city of 66,000 attests to the success of their mission, but it is an ongoing battle. Even in this enlightened (pardon the pun) city, there are poor lights that cause glare, trespass and skyglow, and which have to be constantly monitored and reported. And the resources of the volunteers in the Dark Skies Coalition are stretched very thin dealing with this problem.

Astronomer Chris Luginbuhl put it very well in conversation with me. “I get caught up in lighting controls, and drafting lighting ordinances, but I’m not interested in lighting; I’m interested in nighting”.

Measuring sky brightness with an SQM-L from Buffalo Park in Flagstaff resulted in readings of 20.5, excellent for a city, and corresponding to a Bortle Class of 4, which normally you would only get at the rural / suburban transition. Just a few miles east of the city in the KOA campground the sky was even darker, reading 21.4.

Natural Bridges Dark Sky Park

September 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 5

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.

Natural Bridges National Monument, International Dark Sky Park

In 2006 the International Dark-skies Association designated this small park in Utah as the world’s first International Dark-sky Park, thereby setting the bar incredibly high for those parks that wanted to follow suit.

The skies above Natural Bridges are amongst the darkest in the USA, and the only skies that have been rated as Bortle Class 2.

Natural Bridges National Monument, International Dark Sky Park

And the park has been taking advantage of this unique status ever since. Astronomy forms a major focus of what the park now does, with a twice-weekly stargazing programme utilising an 11″ Schmidt-Cassegrain and a 24″ Dobsonian telescope, allowing visitors to gaze far into the depths of space.

The custom-built Dobsonian telescope

The astronomy programme is run my ranger Gordon Gower, a retired English and history teacher with a burning 50-year passion for astronomy. Graham described the programme to me; the laser tour of the constellations, the telescope viewing, the light pollution demos. These are all offered to the guests staying in the campground, and according to Gordon every Wednesday and Thursday night when the programme runs, the campground empties. “Many of the people that come to Natural Bridges National Monument don’t know about our dark sky status,” says Gordon, “but they are amazed at how clear and bright the Milky Way appears from here.”

The small visitors centre is decked with astronomy posters and books, and both of the park’s telescopes are on prominent display. There are even plans to build a small roll-off roof observatory on the site.

Naturally, the lights in the park are all exemplary, downlighting and adding no unwanted pollution to the park’s skies. For the past five years Natural Bridges has inspired parks around the world – including Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in Scotland, which I helped set up in 2009 – and now there are eight such parks, and the number is growing every year.

Thanks to the National Park Service and Natural Bridges National Monument, areas of our planet are being protected against light pollution, and truly dark skies are being preserved for all to enjoy.

All-sky image of Natural Bridges National Monument

The image above was taken before the end of astronomical twilight, and so a small amount of sunlight is still present in the sky in the east (top left of the image), but it’s worth showing for the meteor that I managed to capture, which is on the right hand side of the image, crossing the longer aeroplane trail.

Using the Sky Quality Meter I was able to measure a sky brightness (after astronomical twilight) of 21.6. This is very dark indeed (need it be said?), but still higher than it should be, due to the Milky Way which was directly overhead when I took the reading, and adds its own light pollution!

Clayton Lake Dark Sky Park

September 8, 2011 1 comment

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 4

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.

Clayton Lake Dark Sky Park

Clayton Lake Dark Sky Park is the fourth International Dark Sky Place on my tour, and so far the most remote. Nestled in NE New Mexico, about 15 miles from the town of Clayton, this small park has long attracted astronomers to its dark skies.

Clayton Lake

Local high school principal Terrell Jones told me: “I’ve been bringing school kids out here for over twenty years to see the dark skies; it was a way of getting more kids interested in taking science, and of keeping the physics class running. We asked their parents to come with them, and lots of the parents – most of them ranchers who you’d have thought wouldn’t have been interested – started to want to know more.”

One such parent was Art Grine, Clayton’s barber. So taken was he with the wonders of the cosmos that he and his wife enrolled in Terrell Jones’ astronomy night class course, and he’s now president of the newly-formed Clayton Astronomy Club, which looks after the small observatory at Star Point,within the dark sky park. Art’s passions for astronomy – although he’s only been doing it for a few years – is evident, and his infectious enthusiasm is one of the main driving forces behind the success of the dark sky park.

Tourism seems to be a big part of the reasoning behind the dark sky park; much like Mont Megantic Dark Sky Reserve the streets of Clayton are festooned with flags promoting astronomy, the local “what’s on” guide features dark skies prominently, and the local hotels actively promote it. After the observatory was installed and the astronomy club set up, they ran monthly astronomy star parties at the site, and applied for and were awarded Dark Sky Park status (Gold Tier) in 2010.

Clayton, New Mexico

Since then they’ve continued to thrive on the dark sky status. Visitors to the park get sent to Art the Astrobarber who unfailingly arranges a time for them to see through the telescope, of which he is rightly proud.

Star Point Observatory, Clayton Lake

And the skies here are really dark, some of the darkest I’ve seen, with SQM readings of 21.6, and very little sky glow evident in the all sky images I took.

One satisfying story of light pollution mitigation comes from the local prison, the North East New Mexico Detention Facility, which opened in 2008, after the Clayton Lake observatory was built. The lights of the new prison were too bright and badly installed, and a new light dome appeared on the horizon of Clayton Lake. Terrel Jones and Art Grine visited the prison governor to ask whether he might instal shields on the lights, and brought with them an example shielding fixture. So persuasive were they that the governor had the inmates manufacture shields for all the offending lights, and so the light-dome was removed.

Geauga Observatory Dark Sky Park

September 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 2

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.

Geauga Observatory Dark Sky Park

Situated only 45 minutes east of Cleveland, Geauga Park District is home to 20 separate parks in Geauga County, Ohio, the largest one of which is also the most recent: Observatory Park.

Observatory Park

This 1100 acre recreation park is home to a brand new observatory and astronomy complex, designed to encourage local schools education, and public astronomy.

The construction of this site is nearing completion, having been planned since 2004, and in 2008 the International Dark-skies Association awarded it provisional dark sky park status, a status that last week was upgraded to full International Dark Sky Park status (pdf).

I was guided round the spectacular Observatory Park by Kathleen Hanes, their Dark Sky Co-ordinator, Tom Curtin, their Executive Director, and Bill Murmann, a local amateur astronomer, and shown all of the amazing brand new facilities that will soon be used by local schools and visitors to the park.

Moon Phase Exhibit

Some of the highlights include:

  • a solar system trail (to scale) covering one mile around the perimeter of the observing field (help for which I discovered was given to Geauga District by Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland)
  • a fully-fitted observatory with 25″ scope
  • five concrete platforms with electric hook-ups for setting up portable scopes outdoors
  • a human sundial
  • winter and summer solstice sunrise alignments
  • proposed “stonehenge” stones marking the direction to specific stars in different seasons
  • a good-sized teaching room complete with planetarium dome sunk into the ceiling

Planetarium Dome

In the afternoon I met with the fundraising team, who have, incredibly, raised much of the money for this development through private donations.

My final meeting was with Terry McGowan of the IDA, who gave lots of useful insight into the lighting regulations at Observatory Park.

Astronomy Tourism at Geauga Observatory Dark Sky Park

With such a new facility, the park is still working out exactly what it means for the local tourism community, but one slight snag (in terms of the park generating revenue for the local county) is the lack of places to stay overnight near Geauga. We had to stay in the next county, albeit only twenty minutes drive from the park.

My sense is that the park will thrive on its education programme, which was the real reason for its creation, and that tourism may not feature too heavily, which is a great shame given how stunning a place it is.

Observatory Park Panorama

 

Mont Megantic Dark Sky Reserve

August 29, 2011 3 comments

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 1

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.

Mont Megantic International Dark Sky Reserve

The Galactic Centre from the summit of Mont Megantic

Situated a few hours east of Montreal in the Quebec province of eastern Canada, Mont Megantic National Park is home to a research observatory, a public observatory, and the ASTROlab science centre. In 2007 it was named by the International Dark-skies Association (IDA) as the world’s first International Dark Sky Park (IDSR).

This designation differs from the similarly named International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) designation in that the IDSR was introduced to allow parks that did not fit in to the US national park model to still aspire towards IDA status; that is, the IDSPs were created to apply to large parks under federal control with no population within the park boundary; the IDSR status is intended for parks who want to work with their surrounding communities towards darker skies for all.

And this is exactly what Mont Megantic National Park did, and in 2007 it was announced as the world’s first (and as yet only) International Dark Sky Reserve.

Astronomy Tourism at Mont Megantic IDSR

Mont Megantic IDSR has a range of incredible resources for astronomy tourism, including the ASTROlab science centre, a public observatory, and a professional observatory with a 1.6m scope which is sometimes opened to the public to use.

The ASTROlab runs astronomy events every Friday night over the summer, including a visit to the ASTROlab, observing at the public observatory (weather permitting) and a tour of the professional observatory.

Mont Megantic Observatory 1.6m scope

Each of these resources existed long before the IDSR status was conferred: the professional observatory was built in 1979; the ASTROlab and the public observatory in the 1980s. It was in part to protect the dark skies which these facilities rely on that the IDSR status was granted.

However there are two main difference between Mont Megantic IDSR and any dark sky places in the UK. They are: there is already a well-established winter tourism sector in the area, based around snow sports, and so astronomy tourism isn’t offering to fill an otherwise empty season, as it does in the UK; and it is possible to run astronomy events at Mont Megantic during summer months, unlike the UK, due to Mont Megantic being around 5-10° further south that the UK.

These factors mean that tourism seems to have been far less of a driver in creating the IDSR at Mont Megantic that it is in the UK, where it is really the sole reason, and the driving force in persuading the community around any dark sky place that there are larger benefits than those that accrue to astronomers.

During my visit to Mont Megantic IDSR I stayed at the incredible Haut Bois Dormant in Notre Dam des Bois, just a few miles from the park, run by the delightful Julie Demers. The entire length of the road running through Notre Dam des Bois was festooned with flags advertising the IDSR, and inside the guest house the IDSR was similarly promoted. However speaking to Julie it seems like the astronomy tourism sector is still to grow to its full potential. One limiting factor seems to be the fact that organised astronomy events are only run on Friday nights, and for the rest of the week you’re on your own.

Flag promoting the IDSR in Notre Dam Des Bois

During my visit I met with four people involved in a variety of ways in astronomy tourism at the park. My visit was arranged by Pierre Brosseau, the communications manager at the ASTROlab, who explained a little of the philosophy behind the creation of the IDSR, which he suggested – as did others – was more to do with fact that it was the “right thing to do” and not as much about generating money for the local economy through tourism.

I was also given a guided tour of the professional observatory by Robert Lamontange, the executive director of the observatory, and later that night by Bernard Malenfant, chairman of the board, and founder of the Astronomy Super Festival, who had been there as long as the observatory (legend has it he came in the box with the primary mirror).

The next day I met with Tania Pinard, the Megantic area tourism officer who took me on a tour of businesses that use astronomy to attract visitors in innovative ways, including the Spa Le Montagnais, which offers stargazing from outdoors hot tubs during the Perseid Meteor Shower!

Later that afternoon I met with Sebastien Giguere, the head of education at ASTROlab, who gave me a wealth of information about the public programme within the IDSR.

Dark Sky Survey of Mont Megantic IDSR

On my final night at the park I went to the top of the mountain and took some SQM-L readings of the sky, as well as some astrophotos to gauge just how dark the sky is. The SQM reading average of six readings was 21.4, very similar to Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park and Sark Dark Sky Island. I repeated this reading in the back garden of the Haut Bois Dormant in Notre Dam Des Bois town, and the reading was 21.3, not appreciably different! The Milky Way stood out prominently in both locations, and could be seen all the way to the horizon.

All-sky image showing Milky Way and galactic centre from Mont Megantic IDSR

 

Dark Sky Travels with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust

February 5, 2011 1 comment

I just heard today that my grant application to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust has been accepted, which means lots of traveling for me later this year!

I applied to the WCMT in late 2010 to visit all of the Dark Sky Places in North America. There are eight of them in total:

This first on the list, and the only one not in the USA is the world’s only Dark Sky Reserve, while the final two on the list are Dark Sky Communities. All the others are Dark Sky Parks.

I aim to spend around a week at each one, studying how they engage with local tourism to promote astronomy as a tourist attraction and thereby boost the economy around the Dark Sky Places. I’ll bring that knowledge back to the UK to help the existing (Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, and Sark, the world’s first Dark Sky Island) and proposed (Exmoor, Peak District, Brecon Beacons, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national parks, and Orkney) Dark Sky Places in the UK.

I’ll be going some time in either September or October 2011, and I’ll be blogging, tweeting and hopefully podcasting throughout my trip.

My thanks go to the WCMT who saw the value in what I proposed to do, and have given me this amazing opportunity!

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