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January 25, 2016 12:42 AM   Subscribe

Planning a romantic evening, a night of meteor watching or taking pictures of the milky way or auroras? Want to know the closest, darkest place to observe the night sky? Consult the Light Pollution Atlas for the darkest viewing areas near you. Yes, even those of us residing outside the borders of the USA.

Direct link to a Google Map. Explanation of the colour scheme. Another version of the map using older data.
posted by Mitheral (38 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it is possible to see any stars here at all, but I think I had a conversation about seeing Venus (?) in the night sky several years ago. Anyway, man, North Korea is so close and yet so far away.
posted by Literaryhero at 3:06 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Predictably, the midlands sucks, and the wee island in Denmark I'm from is awesome. This matches my experience of looking at the night sky.

I was a little surprised to see just how awful the UK is for light pollution generally, and how much better the Republic is than the North of Ireland.
posted by Dysk at 3:12 AM on January 25, 2016

Are all those light sources in the North Sea oil rigs? They seem to produce a large area of light pollution.
posted by antiwiggle at 3:14 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

According to this, our last home in Maine was in the bright yellow (1.73 to 3 ratio) area, and it was still worthwhile to look up at the sky with or without a telescope. In contrast, our current suburban Louisville neighborhood is in the firmly next-to-most light polluted zone (not to mention the other pollution we have in the Ohio valley) and hey, I can still see the moon!
posted by SteveInMaine at 3:42 AM on January 25, 2016

Yeah, no surprise that you can't see much in the sky from my house.
posted by octothorpe at 4:37 AM on January 25, 2016

What explains the abrupt east-west division in the U.S? At first I figured it was the Mississippi, but when I zoomed in on the Google maps version, it very plainly is not the Mississippi. So what is it? Why is there such a straight line there?
posted by OrangeDisk at 4:57 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is cool - thanks for posting.

I was surprised by the amount of light pollution in a large concentration east and a bit north of Moscow. It seems to be one of the larger continuous masses. Or is that an error based on projection? It seems like there's a lot going on there in places I've never heard of: Surgut, Fedorovskiy,Nizhnevartovsk, and then a couple of large white spots that don't correspond to any name on the map that I can see. Can anyone share insight into the region?
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 5:02 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Wild guess: industrial/military sites?
posted by tobascodagama at 5:07 AM on January 25, 2016

What explains the abrupt east-west division in the U.S?

I had the same question! It's right about at the 97 W longitude, which is roughly the dividing line for central and mountain time zones (although the actual zones zig-zag around.) Could this be an artifact of the source material?
posted by TreeRooster at 5:08 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

We are very fortunate to live across the bay from The Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve. A truly splendid sky on the 23 nights a year when there is no cloud cover. Actually, it is such that the nights are much clearer than the days.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:15 AM on January 25, 2016

Could this be an artifact of the source material?
It's a real divide in population density I think.
posted by edd at 5:15 AM on January 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I drive through some of the quite dark areas frequently, and it can be amazing on a clear night to stop by the side of the road, turn off the lights, and stare at the heavens for a few minutes.

Around here the map simply shows where there are people, so that central dividing line may just be showing a jump in population density, similar to what you can see on a road map. (On preview, what edd says.) To pick an example that has been in the news recently, take a look at the area around Burns, OR -- bright light surrounding the town, but as soon as you are a few miles away, the only lights are an occasional ranch. That's the pattern across the region, in contrast to other regions where the density is higher and there aren't big dark areas lacking artificial light.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:19 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

What explains the abrupt east-west division in the U.S?

I had the same question! It's right about at the 97 W longitude, which is roughly the dividing line for central and mountain time zones (although the actual zones zig-zag around.) Could this be an artifact of the source material?

You've found the Great Plains
posted by vacapinta at 5:23 AM on January 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

I grew up in the Boston area, and I remember going out into the darker areas around here and thinking it was cool that I could kind of make out the milky way - it was a real thing!

Then I moved to Seattle and a few months after I did, I drove out to the Olympic Peninsula and lay down to sleep in the (uncovered) back of my pickup truck by the side of the road. And there were so many stars I had trouble making out the constellations. Blew my mind.

When my now-wife and I were driving out of Bryce Canyon on our way to Kanab, UT, several years ago, I realized it was a dark clear night and I pulled over to the side of the road and we spent a while looking at a similarly well-populated night sky. Because I had to share that experience with her.

Relatively easy accessibility of serious darkness is one thing I miss about living in the west.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:51 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

When I used to drive overnight through Nevada to get to and from college at the beginning and end of summers, I would sometimes pull off to the side of the highway somewhere between Tonopah and Hawthorne just to sit and look for awhile. In retrospect, it was pretty risky considering that people on that stretch of the road are in a real goddamn hurry to be somewhere else. Very pretty though.

Where I live now, I am not likely to see anything in the sky that does not portend an Extinction-Level Event.
posted by logicpunk at 5:52 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

That part of Russia (Surgut etc) is a huge region of oil and gas production
posted by dabug at 5:55 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

What explains the abrupt east-west division in the U.S?

West of there is not enough rainfall for agriculture. Beyond the hundredth meridian.

(it is closer to the 98th actually)
posted by bukvich at 5:57 AM on January 25, 2016

I can recommend this place in the Galloway Dark Skies area - a nice B&B with a lot of telescopes and a knowledgable owner attached. I saw things there you people wouldn't believe...
posted by Devonian at 6:11 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

That part of Russia (Surgut etc) is a huge region of oil and gas production

Thanks, dabug. After I posted, I got thinking about that and figured that was the most likely bet. Looking at satellite images, it's easy to see a lot (A LOT!) of drilling (fracking?) sites in the fields and tanks/process units of refineries in the more developed areas.
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 6:24 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

What explains the abrupt east-west division in the U.S?

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Basically, it's a temperate desert with rich soil but not enough rain, long term.
posted by notsnot at 6:37 AM on January 25, 2016

I found the darkest sky in the continental US quite by accident. Natural Bridges National Monument. I swear, closing your eyes to the full moon and you can see the insides of your eyelids, like when you were sunbathing as a kid. From the MOON!
posted by notsnot at 6:39 AM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and bukvich...jinx
posted by notsnot at 6:45 AM on January 25, 2016

My dream is to live in an absurdly dark place out west somewhere. I will develop night vision so that I don't contribute to any light pollution.
posted by desjardins at 6:53 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Fitting that Moonshine, IL seems like one of the closest darker patches
posted by xorry at 6:59 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of the things I love about this kind of map is that it's almost like having a map of economic activity. Obviously, it maps to where people are, but wealthy regions give off far more light than poorer areas. So we see the sharp divide between the North and South Koreas. There are more people in the south, but the population density isn't as drastic as the economic divide revealed by light pollution. And those lights in central Russia, the North Sea and off the coast of Nigeria show the money going into oil rigs.
posted by Loudmax at 7:08 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Whenever I see a map like this, I always want to subtract the data from a population density map. To a first approximation light pollution follows population, at least in the first world. But there are interesting outliers. For infamous example, North Korea. I want a map that highlights the outliers!

If you're interested in improving your back yard astronomy, the Clear Sky Chart is really useful (example: San Francisco). It depicts darkness based on the moon, etc along with weather data like cloud cover and transparency, giving an hour-by-hour depiction of viewing conditions. I thought it also brought in overall light pollution data but since that's a constant, maybe not.
posted by Nelson at 8:37 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Glad to see Hammond Bay, MI is as dark as I thought... You can see pretty much everything on a clear, non-hazy night.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:47 AM on January 25, 2016

I wonder if the less populated area in the U.S. is so arid because it's in the "rain shadow" of the Rockies.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:52 AM on January 25, 2016

Yep benito. Weather patterns over the Pacific pick up water from the ocean and dump it as rain in the northwest, and then most of the rest gets dumped on the Rockies, in the form of snow at higher altitudes. (IANAMeteorologist, this is my undergrad understanding.)
posted by desjardins at 10:32 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Those of you surprised by the division need to make a cross country driving trip. No snark intended, it’s obvious if you live out that way.
posted by bongo_x at 11:06 AM on January 25, 2016

Looks like I didn't invent the term rain shadow. Like desjardins says:
On the largest scale, the entirety of the North American Interior Plains are shielded from the prevailing Westerlies carrying moist Pacific weather by the North American Cordillera.
/The Interior Plains are my favorite concept so far this year.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:47 AM on January 25, 2016

If you've never been in one of these places, and wonder why some people make such a fuss about meteor showers ... they were probably viewing them in one of these places.

If you live near one of those dark areas, just driving in their direction five or ten miles can help -a lot- with meteors. On a good year, with no moon, you'll understand the fuss.

Oh, and if the area is REALLY dark, you'll see that our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, is *at least* 7 times as wide as the moon. Amazing.
posted by Twang at 12:25 PM on January 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you ever get the chance to visit the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains in western Texas---particularly during one of their Star Parties, on a moonless night---take it!

You can see the Milky Way before your eyes even adjust from your car's headlights. The darkness and the 7,000 foot elevation make for an exceptional sky. And that's before you look through the telescopes...

It's really spectacular---and I'm someone who couldn't identify Cassiopeia if it smacked me across the cheek!
posted by tss at 2:42 PM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is where I share the story about how I found out about a field in a remote corner of the Isle of Skye that was really dark at night and perfect for stargazing. We were there on a vacation, so we drove to the spot and sat there waiting for it to get darker. At around 4am we gave up when we saw the sun starting to rise... we forgot that the sky doesn't actually get dark in the middle of summer.
posted by destrius at 11:34 PM on January 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

One of the coolest things (among many) about Grand Canyon National Park, for me, was their commitment to preventing light pollution. All lights in the park environs are shielded from casting any light upwards, and it really makes a difference. Laying on the overlook that is just outside the visitor's center at around midnight, just me and my wife alone in some of the darkest night I've yet gotten to experience, amazed at the sky and counting shooting stars will be something I never ever forget.
posted by namewithoutwords at 8:47 AM on January 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Semi-related--I love the night sky as much as the next guy, but as a colorblind person these color-coded maps are effectively useless to me. I can logically make out what's areas are likely to be light-polluted based on pure geographical knowledge, but it's frustrating to not have an alternative to color as a mapmaking feature.
posted by eggman at 1:16 PM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ya, you never see hatching on google maps. If they support it they should promote it more.
posted by Mitheral at 6:02 PM on January 29, 2016

Yeah the color scheme is unfortunate. Not only for not working for 5% of the world, but also because it's an angry rainbow which was then deliberately broken by alternating between high and low brightness. This is particularly apparent if you convert the image to grayscale; ideally that'd be a uniform ramp from dark to light, not stripes.

As always I'll share the Good News, which is Color Brewer is the right way to choose a scale for a visualization like this. It includes "colorblind safe" options for the most common form of color blindness. Any of the sequential scales would work well for this data, I think. I'd also try it with one of the diverging scales just to see how it worked.
posted by Nelson at 7:39 AM on January 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

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