Hello darkness my old friend

I learned something from our students. We have these introductory classes for incoming students, and one of them, led by Keith Brugger, was in part about measuring light pollution. So they went out and around Morris, using a meter to measure how dark the skies were in the evening. This is not something I knew anything about, but this week I learned about the Bortle Scale, which I suspect astronomers are already totally familiar with.

I’ve seen the Milky Way vividly outside of town (not in town, unfortunately), so I’d have guessed there are some places nearby that are around a 3 or lower — when we’ve wanted to check out interesting phenomena like the aurora or meteors we go just a few kilometers outside of town for good viewing. This survey produced a map of dark skies for us that suggest some changes.

Morris is roughly at the intersection of Highway 59, which runs north-south, and Highway 28, which runs east-west. I’m used to driving 28, which is the route towards the big cities of eastern Minnesota, so we’ve often scurried out to a spot on 28 east of town to do our skywatching.

According to this map, though, we’d be better off driving south on 59, where it gets even darker. That makes sense — 28 has a small amount of road traffic, and there are itty-bitty farming towns scattered along it, while 59 north leads to Alexandria, has some farms with surprisingly bright lights around the buildings, and also leads to some big wind farms. There’s nothing south on 59. I’ve rarely driven that way, because it’s just empty for a long distance. So now I know where to go during the next meteor shower.

Hey, astronomers, you know this is a good place to live for your ilk! Come on out and stay a while!

Although there is a downside — if you come out with a telescope and go to the darkest regions on the map in the winter months, you’ll also find that it may be -20°C with a wind howling across the open fields.


  1. says

    That huge bright blob east of town on highway 10 is strange — that is, apparently, the wetlands office. Do they have bright lights around there? I might have to check it out, because really, there’s nothing there but one building. Maybe they did their measurements on the night the UFOs descended?

  2. says

    Visit Morris. We’ll drive a short distance out of town on a clear night, and you’ll see it. Best of all if you catch it on a good night for the aurora.

  3. Sean Boyd says

    Even on Xmas, you’ve come to talk with us again.

    It’s been a very long time since I’ve properly seen the night sky. The Seattle-Tacoma area is, well, rather light-polluted. Not having a car, I don’t get far out of town too often. I do remember a time, though, when my folks took a young me to Calico, CA. Staring up at the night sky…wow.

  4. dalemacdougall says

    You are using kilometers and celsius? Making me homesick for my native Canada. Speaking of which, the greatest star gazing I’ve ever seen was when I was out in the army training areas of Alberta in the winter. More stars than you could have imagined and dancing Northern Lights like in a youtube video. Almost made up for the cold :)

  5. stroppy says


    Southern Arizona is good on astronomy…

    A clear view of the Milky Way is a spectacular and awe inspiring sight to behold. One of those things that makes for a good bucket list item. Sleep under the stars if you get a chance

  6. ORigel says

    My area is a Bortle Scale 4. I can see up to magnitude 6.0 stars at the zenith on clear moonless nights with no haze. More typical is magnitude 5.6 at the zenith.

  7. dianneleonard says

    Back in the mid-1970s, I spent the summer in a very sparsely populated area of northeastern Montana, the nearest town being one of 350–during the tourist season. I’d grown up in cities/suburbs so, though I’d seen pictures of the Milky Way and the night sky, I’d never seen it with my own eyes. On the first night after I arrived, I walked about a mile outside of town and looked up–and there it was, in all its glory! I could barely breathe. I knew, in that moment, how our human ancestors felt, looking up into the night sky, and why they told stories about it. The rest of the summer, I did the same thing every night: watched the glorious sunset over the Great Plains, then walked outside town to watch the stars. (Actually, the only other option was to drive to another small town about 20 miles away and drink, which, compared to the stars, didn’t appeal.) Since then, I’ve seen the same thing many times, most notably in North Cascades National Park and in the Canadian Rockies, but nothing can compare to my first sight of that glory. To this day, that experience brings tears to my eyes and shivers to my spine. That sight is part of our heritage as human beings, and people who haven’t seen it are the poorer for that lack.

  8. Ragutis says

    The skies around here aren’t great, but it’s usually worth it to go out for the major meteor showers, Of course, I seem to have been cursed by rain, overcast or full moons for what seems like years. My 2 memorable dark sky experiences were camping in the Keys as a Boy Scout a hundred or two years ago and making a night crossing to the Bahamas for a fishing trip. Camping in a certified Dark Sky Place is on my bucket list, as is seeing the Milky Way and an aurora. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get ’em all in one trip someday. I should really quit dicking around and dawdling on these types of things though.

  9. Ragutis says

    We’re never going to get an edit feature, are we? Anyway:

    I learned something from our students.

    Isn’t that why you teach?

  10. brightmoon says

    I live in NYC . I can see bright stars like in Orion and the Winter Hexagon and the Summer Triangle. I’ve never seen the Milky Way

  11. unclefrogy says

    I live right close by L. A. harbor the light pollution here is severe some times on a cloudy overcast night it looks as bright as just after dusk all night long.
    I have managed to see the moon pointing toward the sun and a hint of the orbital plane of the planets.
    I have gone out in the desert east of here and slept under that blanket of stars before, one of the most holy experiences I have ever had. It still is with me these many years after.
    uncle frogy

  12. leerudolph says

    dianneleonard: “That sight is part of our heritage as human beings, and people who haven’t seen it are the poorer for that lack.” Yes!

  13. jrkrideau says

    I grew up in the country before we had much in the way of light pollution. The Milky Way was just a normal night time sky. It is gorgeous and some day I may identify the North Star. Finding the Big Dipper was child’s play—well I was a child—but I have never been sure that I found the North Star.

    Another fun thing in winter was trying to read by the light of the moon.

  14. robro says

    The first time I saw the Milky Way was after my senior year in college in a remote valley of East Tennessee. The bright path of stars followed the valley running generally north-south.

    I’ve also seen the Milky Way many times in rural and suburban parts of California. I’ve even seen it outside my back door in the heart of San Francisco as well as the faint wispy glow of the Andromeda galaxy. The trick is that outside that back door is a area we call “the ditch”. It’s about 4 feet wide with the house on one side up to 10 feet high and a 7-to-8 foot wall on the other 3 sides. I had read once that well-diggers can see stars in the middle of the day from the bottom of a well, so I gave it a try outside our back door and it worked. Straight above our “ditch” is relatively dark and light free even though it isn’t very deep and in the middle of an urban environment. There is still pollution so it’s not good for photography, and the view is limited. And of course, San Francisco doesn’t have many cloud free nights.

  15. says

    I live in a university town, where local astronomy enthusiasts figured they’d have an attentive audience when they encouraged the city council to adopt public lighting fixtures that generated less light pollution and increased sky visibility. Instead they were roundly mocked by the local newspaper columnist, who made fun of them for enabling muggers and night-time burglars. Wasteful lighting fixtures remained in place. [sigh]

  16. trog69 says

    Here in S. Arizona, the city near me passed laws concerning night sky-friendly lighting measures. So yellow highway lights and streets, etc. Heading down about 15miles south on I-10 will deposit you to level 1 or 2 sites. We are very fortunate for readily available observing.

  17. Chakat Firepaw says

    That huge bright blob east of town on highway 10 is strange — that is, apparently, the wetlands office. Do they have bright lights around there?

    I wouldn’t be surprised, that kind of institutional location is often well lit at all hours. Looking at the data points, I also suspect that the large bright blob is an artifact: It’s a single clear sky reading surrounded by cloudy sky readings, (which likely are given less weight in generating the map), a fair distance away. Had there been more measurements on 10 to the east, (like on 28 or 59 to the north), it would likely be just a single bright spot.

  18. wzrd1 says

    Annoyingly, I’ve recognized a few common events in life.
    First, being, whenever something interesting is to be observed in the skies, it’s normally overcast, at best, usually, totally socked in.
    Being in areas that are beyond rural, attention was drawn, due to military duties.
    So, I’ve never observed the Milky Way, edge on.

    Which irritates me no end.

  19. tomh says

    After spending 30 years with the dark skies of southern Oregon, I got old and moved to town. That’s the thing I miss the most, exploring the stars with my homemade 10″ Dobsonian telescope. For anyone with really dark skies, learn to find the Andromeda Galaxy, the farthest object that can be seen with the naked eye (2.5M lys.) It’s easy to star hop to, plenty of sites on the web can tell you how.

  20. flexilis says

    One of the most moving experiences of my life: A few years ago I camped on the north rim of the Grand Canyon with my son-in-law. He is an avid photographer and shooting the Milky Way over the canyon was his goal. We got up at 2 am after the moon had set and walked out to a point. While he set up for his shots I wandered (carefully) by myself. The starlight was ample for seeing the trail. There was only one distant light far to the south, and an occasional satellite overhead; everything else was primeval night.

    I have mostly lived in rural areas, and camped often in the wilderness. This was the purest and darkest, most literally awe-inspiring night I have known.

  21. Nemo says

    I too have never seen the Milky Way with my own eyes. There’s no dark sky east of the MIssissippi. I decided recently that I ought to try to see it while I still have my sight. Browsing the dark sky maps, the Grand Canyon looked like one of the best places — kind of a twofer. And then I remembered the words of 10000 Maniacs’ “The Painted Desert”:

    You met a new friend in the Canyon
    Or so you wrote
    On a blanket in the cooling sand
    You and your friend agreed that
    The stars were so many there
    They seemed to overlap

  22. chris61 says

    Lying on the beach in Acadia National Park one July night. One of the joys of turning 62 a few years ago was the ($20 I think) lifetime pass to the National Parks.

  23. says

    Sorry, I’m going to be annoying.
    I live on the island of La Palma in the Canary islands. There’s a major astronomical observatory on the top of the mountain, so we have laws about light pollution. (I’m a tour guide at the massive Gran Telescopio Canarias, which has a mirror 10.4m/ 34ft in diameter) It’s probably a 4 in the middle of the village in the evenings, but they turn the streetlights down at middnight. Never mind the Milky Way, I sometimes see the zodiacal light from my balcony if I have to get up early. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zodiacal_light)

    It’s warm too.