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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How Dark are the Skies in Mitzpe Ramon?

Mitzpe Ramon proper has quite bright lighting, unfortunately, but just a few kilometers out of the city and you are back in the desert where the sky is quite dark. How dark? John Bortle developed a standardized scale for evaluating sky darkness which has become widely adopted. It has been used in the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness to color code a world map to show light pollution.

Mitzpe Ramon on a Bortle Scale map of Israel. Black-gray-blue-green-yellow indicate increasing light pollution. White is the most light polluted.

Bortle dark sky classes

Mitzpe Ramon is located at the border of a Bortle Scale gray/blue (Class 2/3) zone which is described as "typical truly dark site/rural site". Only Class 1, black, "excellent dark sky site" has darker skies. As you can see, much of tiny Israel suffers from light pollution, with only a small area of the central Negev classified as "truly dark". This is where Mitzpe Ramon lies (see map).

But the Negev's dark skies are under constant attack. Mitzpe Ramon itself, a town of about 5,000, does not do enough to mitigate light pollution. A new training facility for IDF officers just outside Mitzpe Ramon throws bright light unnecessarily across the desert. Gas stations along Route 40 are lit like sports stadiums. Tourist lodgings like Hawarim Farm have spot lights that light up the surrounding desert like a prison, and then there is Nafha/Ramon Prison which is lit like a prison because, well, it is one. Unless care is taken the little dark sky that remains in Israel will soon be swallowed by lights that are completely unnecessary.

Institutions like the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) are designating places official "dark sky" locations in recognition of their efforts to control light pollution and encourage astronomy tourism. The Channel Island of Sark, in the English Channel, is the first destination to be so named. Wouldn't it be great if Israel could work towards protecting and extending the dark skies of the Negev to become the first area in the Middle East to be named a "dark sky" destination!

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