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Rob Sellent

Cloudy Nights & Hobby Challenges

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Going over the thread 'Hobby Killers' and sleeping on the idea, I wonder whether UK stargazing could to be treated as a rather peculiar and frustrating 'seasonal hobby'. Unlike fruit foraging, mushroom picking or skiiing, for example, you can potentially do it all year round but just like these pursuits, you can only do it for about a third of any given average year.

Using Meteoblue's diagrams and working through the average number of cloudy days in a handful of cities in the south of England and those cities around where I live in Spain reveals some interesting data.

Cloudy Days

According to my sums, Southern UK on average annually experiences:

  • 35 clear days a year where cloud cover is below 20%                                                                                                 
  • 180 partly clear days a year where cloud cover is between 20-80%
  • 150 overcast days a year where cloud cover is over 80%

Whilst accordingly, this area of Spain on average annually experiences:

  • 122 clear days a year where cloud cover is below 20%
  • 195 partly clear days where cloud cover is between 20-80%
  • 48 overcast days a year where cloud cover is over 80%

Partly Cloudy Days

Evidently, the partly clear day category is too comprehensive. Within it would include relatively clear days and rather dull overcast days. If we accept that the percentage difference of 20 to 80 is 25%, we can taper this category into four smaller divisions:

  • 25% of partly clear days where cloud cover is between 20-35%
  • 25% of partly clear days where cloud cover is between 35-50%
  • 25% of partly clear days where cloud cover is between 50-65%
  • 25% of partly clear days where cloud cover is between 65-80%

We can now adjust our tables and speculate that:

Southern UK on average annually experiences:

  • 35 clear days a year where cloud cover is below 20%                                                                                                 
  • 45 days a year where cloud cover is between 20-35%
  • 45 days a year where cloud cover is between 35-50%
  • 45 days a year where cloud cover is between 50-65%
  • 45 days a year where cloud cover is between 65-80%
  • 150 overcast days a year where cloud cover is over 80%

While this area of Spain on average annually experiences:

  • 122 clear days a year where cloud cover is below 20%
  • 49 days a year where cloud cover is between 20-35%
  • 49 days a year where cloud cover is between 35-50%
  • 48 days a year where cloud cover is between 50-65%
  • 49 days a year where cloud cover is between 65-80%
  • 48 overcast days a year where cloud cover is over 80%

Observable Nights

Now, for the sake of argument, let's assume that those days are in fact nights and that as individuals we have two possible states to be in: either potentially we are able to observe, or not. With that in mind we could argue that:

In southern UK about

  • 125 nights a year - about 34% of the time - it is potentially possible to observe where cloud cover is 50% or less.
  • 90 nights a year - about 25% of the time - it is going to be tricky to observe where cloud cover is between 50-80%.
  • 150 nights a year - about 41% of the time - it's pretty much impossible where cloud cover is over 80%.

On the other hand, in this area of Spain:

  • 220 nights a year - about 60% of the time - it is potentially possible to observe where cloud cover is 50% or less.
  • 97 nights a year - about 27% of the time - it is going to be tricky to observe where cloud cover is between 50-80%.
  • 48 nights a year - about 13% of the time - are pretty much impossible where cloud cover is over 80%.

Speculative Sum

Needless to say, these possibilities are not solely dependent on cloudless or partly cloudless nights but ought to also take into account fatigue, compromises, commitments, family and work, studies, holidays, astronomical summer twilight hours, full moon, coldness, sky visibility from observing site, visiting in-laws, anniversaries, birthdays, illness and dodgy gear, and so on. Again, for the sake of argument, could we thus assume that on average between 5-10% of one's free time during the year is also taken up by other factors which make observing extremely difficult?

If that were so, we could now try to round up our figures above to get just a general gist or inclination of what could be averagely expected during a given year.

In the UK - on average a stargazer can expect to

  • not being able to observe about 50% of the year.
  • maybe being able to observe around 20% of the year.
  • and can almost definitely be able to observe about 30% of the year.

On the other hand, in this area of Spain, on average a stargazer can expect to

  • not being able to observe about 25% of the year.
  • maybe being able to observe around 15% of the year.
  • and can almost definitely be able to observe about 60% of the year.

Concluding Remarks

It would be interesting to see if the figures above do justice to the situation. Are they misleading? Are there just too many speculative statistics and averages being bandied around? That this is just not what happens in reality?

However, if any of this is feasible, perhaps to avoid sentiments of frustration or annoyance it might be a good idea to understand UK stargazing as a peculiar 'seasonal hobby'. It is something one can expect to do each season but only on about a third of that given year. If one gets more observable nights under one's belt, then that's good news. If not, no worries, for on average this is to be expected.

Often we point out to beginners what sort of telescope they ought to purchase. Other times, we indicate sketches or pictures of what is possible to observe visually or by imaging. But what might also be helpful within those threads is to point out that in the UK one cannot realistically expect to observe more than about 50% of their free time and in consequence, it makes sense to have other hobbies or pursuits on the go.

To this we could also factor in costs. In a very real sense, it becomes cheaper more quickly to observe/image in Spain than it does in the UK. Just taking 'definitely observable nights' into consideration, UK stargazing/imaging is twice as expensive as Spain. Or again, an astro session in Spain is potentially half as much as it is in the UK. By drawing this to our attention, it might make sense - according to one's means - to take this into account when working out an astro related budget. By doing this, one needn't feel they have spent too much or tied up too much money in unused gear.

Finally, it's rarely a good idea to put all one's eggs in the proverbial basket. As a 'seasonal hobby', any extreme sense of dedication/specialisation will only lead to being disheartened and frustrated, or perhaps worse, a kind of laziness where one does relatively 'nothing' in their free time unless observing/imaging. This should not be the cherished lot for a UK stargazer. Instead, this seasonality opens up the possibility of being able to do so much more, being able to dedicate oneself to other fulfilling hobbies or avenues of astronomy.

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I've spent more than a small fortune on equipment, much of which gets little practical use for the reasons outlined in the OP.  However, I also am a keen solar observer which adds to the equation, I'm forever building new equipment or maintaining it.  I am heavily involved with outreach which includes visiting schools or hosting other groups.  So for me, the "hobby" is pretty much full time throughout the year.  I also have an astro apartment in Tenerife so I know where you are "coming from".   🙂

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I second the solar option as a valid hobby for the retired and perhaps the shift worker.

The long summer season, where it never really gets dark in northerly climes, denies night time observation and imaging.

Light pollution is affected in intensity by cloud cover and vice versa.  The Moon is a blot on the sky for many imagers.

Perhaps we should cost the hobby in Pounds/Dollars/Euros invested per hour of observation/imaging per year?

Then compare it with the average post, entry level investment in other equally frustrating pastimes. :smile:

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We spent all of October in Villajoyosa (between Alicante and Benidorm).  We had 24 perfectly clear nights, 5 partially clear and 1 with full cloud including a 90 minute thunderstorm with lightning every 5 seconds.   I rather liked getting a months rain over and done with in a couple of hours and totally loved the rest of the time.

10pm to 3am, 28c, Tee shirt and shorts, binoculars and wine.   Simple stargazing at its best.

Up here just northeast of Glasgow we get the opposite, 1 clear night 5 partially cloudy and 24 100% cloudy nights.

I think I need to move!

2019-10-05 22.14.03.jpg

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I'm seriously considering solar Ha either imaging or possibly observing.  I expect to pursue that next spring when I hope for some better weather.  To do both solar and DSO imaging I plan to add a second pier and mini/micro observatory for my widefield rig.  ATM I have my WF rig on my EQ 8 mount where it looks ridiculous.

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I wonder whether H-alpha observing would change anything? On average, irrespective of day time or night time observing, a stargazer in southern UK can expect to:

  • not being able to observe about 50% of the year.
  • maybe being able to observe around 20% of the year.
  • and can almost definitely be able to observe about 30% of the year.

Interestingly, costs factors would still indicate that within reason UK stargazing/imaging could be as much as twice as expensive as it is in Spain. Observing in white light and using one's scope for both daytime and night-time would significantly reduce these costs but I feel the general ratio would remain, for those in Spain would do likewise.

 As such the arguments above remains the same:

  • to avoid sentiments of frustration or annoyance it might be a good idea to understand UK stargazing whether done in the daytime or at night as a peculiar type of 'seasonal hobby'
  • within reason, one cannot expect to observe celestial objects per se more than about 50% of one's free time and in consequence, it makes sense to have other hobbies or pursuits on the go
  • this 'seasonality' is in fact a boon for it opens up the possibility of being able to do so much more (building, tinkering, swotting up or whatever).
3 hours ago, Rusted said:

Perhaps we should cost the hobby in Pounds/Dollars/Euros invested per hour of observation/imaging per year?

Personally, this is how I tend to work out the cost of something. To this, I try whenever possible to also consider Thoreau's idea that the cost of a thing is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it. Curiously, somethings which are considered expensive end up being relatively cheap, whilst cheaper options can sometimes end up being costly :smiley:

Edited by Rob Sellent
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Great post OP.  I knew that the observable nights abroad were far more numerous, but this is very interesting and I think you’ve made reasonable assumptions in the statistics. It was only last week I wondered about ‘how much better’ it is in a country like Spain for this hobby.  Thanks for sharing.

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9 hours ago, Alkaid said:

I think you’ve made reasonable assumptions in the statistics

Thank you for being the first to mention this (I think). It would be nice to hear what others have to say about the figures, but I feel the OP went down a bit like a a lead balloon :sad2:

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I live abroad and could do with a few more clear days myself.
Provided I could be home for dinner and my own bed. :wink2:

One doesn't like to kill the messenger but who wants to be reminded of the futility of our expensive toys?
Versus active hours of freezing your wotsits off while waiting eternally for the clouds to clear.
Perhaps the real lesson should be that we should all maximise our productive time at [or near] the telescope.
Mounting stored in a secure box out on the lawn. Make the box itself the permanent weatherproof mounting?
Carry out the OTA, plonk, slew to voice search and start observing or imaging.
Are we all humble mechanics or "riders of the sky?" :biggrin:

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1 hour ago, Rob Sellent said:

Thank you for being the first to mention this (I think). It would be nice to hear what others have to say about the figures, but I feel the OP went down a bit like a a lead balloon :sad2:

Yeh, lead balloon that crashed into the Pyrenees due to bad weather that goes on for ever, except in Spain it seems. Only joking, it’s just that I am quite close but have UK weather which is a long version of “I am envious”.

Marv

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I agree that complimentary hobbies make sense but for me this is my only hobby now.

I would like to play my guitar and get back in a band but don't have the time to practice enough and could never commit to a band with work and family commitments.

I used to enjoy outdoor activities but don't have the time to train and keep fit enough so I don't do that either.

With astronomy although opportunities can be patchy I can take the opportunities when possible and I can go 6 weeks with no opportunities and then pick it back up no problem.

It means I am learning slowly, but maybe if I had unrelentingly clear skies I would have burned out of the hobby by now - who knows.

My take for UK observing is to have simple easy set ups ready to take the opportunities when they come. This often means short sessions in not so good conditions, and having a go at any object with any scope whether it's the right tool for the job or not, but it's all relative.

Maybe this is a golden age where the access to good equipment and the opportunities to use it are at a peak - the sky may get even more cloudy, or satellite riddled, or light polluted. We will find out in time.

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