Atmospheric conditions for astronomy on Tenerife

It’s no fluke that one of the world’s foremost professional observatories is here in Tenerife. Its location just north of the equator gives it a great view of the northern and part of the southern sky but this in itself isn’t enough reason. Key to its suitability is its climate and lack of light pollution. In fact Tenerife isn’t just a great location, it’s one of the three very best in the world according to a study by the International Astronomical Union.

The trade winds that predominate here cause a temperature inversion that traps most cloud between 600-1000m which in term traps airborne pollution and lessens the effect of light pollution from the cities and resorts on the coast below.

The high altitude of the Teide Observatory (circa 2400m) means it’s normally above the clouds where the air is clear. To determine how good it is for astronomy, the quality of the sky is measured in a number of ways. Chief amongst these is:

  • Seeing (or how turbulent the atmosphere is that you are trying to see through) measured in arc-seconds (the lower the better)
  • Sky Brightness (how dark and free from extraneous light pollution the site is) measured in sqm (the higher the better)
  • Lack of cloud cover (expressed as a percentage of time) the higher the better

Data gathered over several years shows that the conditions are extremely good:

  • Seeing is recorded at 1 arc-second or better for 80% of the time (very good) with a low of 0.2 (extremely good)
  • Sky Brightness is recorded at circa 22sqm (very good)
  • Lack of cloud cover is recorded at 79%

These conditions combine to make Tenerife especially suited to astronomy and explains why it is such an important site for research.

It is however surprisingly easy for amateur astronomers to access these same conditions; the roads to the Teide National Park are good and there are many places to set up equipment, although you may have to put up with passing headlights sometimes unless you can find a quiet spot. It provides a fantastic opportunity to carry out detailed observations, see faint objects or capture images of planets and deep sky objects in greater resolution and clarity than ever before. Being a popular holiday destination only 4 to 5 hours from the UK and having year round darkness, it offers so much for the amateur astronomer looking for a beach holiday he can combine with his hobby.

Every year I come here, I am stunned by the darkness of the sky, the clarity and brightness of the stars and to be honest, until you’ve done astronomy here at 2000m+ in shorts and a t-shirt, you just haven’t lived!

Clear skies and keep looking up!

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