Guide, Inspirational things to do, Light, Places to visit, Pollution | 18 November 2021
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day,” Vincent Van Gogh.
Whenever I’m out of the city and look up at the starry sky I feel amazed as the whole twinkling world takes my breath away. Realising that I don’t often get to fully appreciate the night sky in all its glory, I decided to look at the places in the world where it is considered to be at its best. Along the way I discovered the organisations that are working to protect our dark skies and why it’s so important that they do so. In this piece I list some of the initiatives that are showing us where to best appreciate dark skies and how we can protect them.
The reason many of us can’t fully enjoy the beauty of the night sky from our homes is light pollution which causes even some of the brightest stars to become lost. The places in the world that are least affected by light pollution are called dark skies and are mainly found in remote and elevated areas. In these areas stargazers and astronomers alike can fully connect with the skies above them. These areas have such an incredibly low level of light pollution that it is impossible to recognise some of the major constellations due to the glorious abundance of stars.
So, what is light pollution?
The International Astronomical Union defines light pollution as, “artificial light that shines where it is neither wanted nor needed.” A 2016 study entitled, “The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness,” published in “Science Advances” said that, “more than 80% of the world and more than 99% of the U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies. The Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity, including 60% of Europeans and nearly 80% of North Americans. Moreover, 23% of the world’s land surfaces between 75°N and 60°S, 88% of Europe, and almost half of the United States experience light-polluted nights.” Thus, the issue is a global one, so it is important to consider the impact of light pollution.
Chasing Stars, the organisation behind the Cranborne Chase, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, International Dark Sky Reserve (in central southern England), states that, “light pollution has become a major environmental issue, with approximately 830,000 tonnes of CO2 pollution produced from the energy wasted by UK streetlights alone. Not only that, but this wasted light is costing £1 billion a year in the UK.”
“A night sky without artificial light is imperative for natural landscapes and their eco-systems to function correctly.”
“The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness,” study notes that “light pollution is one of the most pervasive forms of environmental alteration. It affects even otherwise pristine sites because it is easily observed during the night hundreds of kilometres from its source in landscapes that seem untouched by humans during the day, damaging the night-time landscapes even in protected areas, such as national parks.” Examples include the light domes of Las Vegas and Los Angeles which can be seen from Death Valley National Park. To put this into context the Death Valley National Park is 126 miles or 202km from Las Vegas, and 214 miles or 344 km from Los Angeles!
A night sky without artificial light is imperative for natural landscapes and their eco-systems to function correctly. The current level of artificial lighting is negatively impacting habitats of nocturnal wildlife, including many protected species. In a UK study, published in “Science Advances,” artificial streetlights were found to be a massive disruptor for nocturnal moths, reducing the number of caterpillars in their natural habitats by half. This has enormous consequences because it affects the feeding habits of birds and other wildlife that rely on these insects for food. There are, however, practical (even simple) solutions available to us that don’t compromise public safety. For example, researchers for the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology suggest dimming streetlights in the early hours and fitting motion sensors or using colour filters to cut out the most harmful wavelengths, as possible solutions to lessen the negative impact of artificial lighting.
According to The National Geographic Society, “studies show that light pollution is also impacting animal behaviours, such as migration patterns, wake-sleep habits, and habitat formation. Because of light pollution, sea turtles and birds guided by moonlight during migration get confused, lose their way, and often die.” Ecosystems are unbalanced by huge numbers of insects (a primary food source as demonstrated above) that are drawn to artificial lights and instantly killed upon contact.
“Protecting, promoting and supporting our dark night skies is an essential element of protecting the health of the planet and its inhabitants. Now could not be a more important time to look up at the world above us. ”
“Even animals living under the sea may be affected by underwater artificial lighting. One study looked at how marine animals responded to brightly lit panels submerged under water off the coast of Wales. Fewer filter feeding animals, such as the sea squirt and sea bristle, made their homes near the lighted panels.” This could mean that the light from oil rigs, passing ships, and harbours is altering marine ecosystems, according to The National Geographic Society.
Beyond wildlife, studies demonstrate that direct exposure to artificial light at night can have a serious effect on human health and wellbeing. It alters our circadian cycle, the hormones responsible for our sleep patterns. This disruption is linked to medical disorders like depression, insomnia, stress, fatigue and can cause low productivity levels. Paolo Sassone-Corsi, the chairman of the Pharmacology Department at the University of California has stated that “the circadian cycle controls ten to fifteen perfect of our genes, therefore disruption of (the circadian cycle) can cause a lot of health problems.”
Read more about the impact of light in our homes in our Human centric lighting article.
Protecting, promoting and supporting our dark night skies is an essential element of protecting the health of the planet and its inhabitants. Now could not be a more important time to look up at the world above us. Fortunately, there are many organisations doing great work in this area from which we can benefit immensely. Not only because they are preserving our dark skies and protecting the planet, but they also provide us with some wonderful opportunities to get out into nature, and experience breath taking night skies ourselves.
The organisations helping us see and protect dark skies
International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), global
The International Dark-Sky Association works to protect our night skies for present and future generations. They believe that the night sky should be celebrated and protected around the world. Through videos, tools, tips, research and events suitable for individuals, policymakers, and industry, they are working to reduce light pollution and promote responsible outdoor lighting.
Their website is full of resources to educate and inspire, including:
• a guide to finding dark sky friendly lighting, find here
• an interactive map of global dark skies sites, find here
• videos about dark skies, find here
They also run a virtual, worldwide Global conference, “Under one sky” in November, dates for 2022 are to be confirmed.
To find out more about the International Dark-Sky Association visit their website here.
Dark Skies Cumbria, UK
Cumbria has some of the darkest skies in the UK, however they are vanishing with the increase of artificial lights. Dark Skies Cumbria is the only membership organisation dedicated to protecting and enhancing these beautiful landscapes from wasteful lighting. They are campaigning for the proper use of lighting, to make it more effective for ourselves and the environment.
Dark Skies Cumbria run events in November for visitors to enjoy the dark skies, including a night-time “wildlife sounds experience,” a night-time canoe trip, a “stargazing dinner and spoon whittling” evening. They also run very popular online (and therefore available to all), Planetarium shows for children and adults hosted by L’Universe at Lancaster University.
Find out more about Dark Skies Cumbria here.
Life Elevated Utah, USA
Utah is the perfect spot for stargazers, it has the highest concentration of International Dark-Sky Association certified locations in America, if not the world. Their parks, protected areas and communities, play host to some of the finest dark skies in the world, and Life Elevated can help you find them.
Click here to find their comprehensive guide to the best dark-sky observation areas.
They also provide information about the University of Utah’s south physics observation which offers free public star parties, during which, on a clear night, you could see galaxies, stars, moons, planets, and clusters.
Dark Skies Festival, UK
The Dark Skies Festival celebrates the star-studded skies above Great Britain’s national parks. The festivals are about discovering, learning, and enjoying the dark and the stars. They include activities ranging from cycling and caving in the dark, to daytime activities like making rockets, and star constellation lessons.
To find out more about the events that the Dark Skies Festival are holding, click here.
Dark Sky project, New Zealand
As leaders in astro-tourism and stargazing experience, the Dark Sky project in Takapo, New Zealand is guaranteed to offer a dark sky experience you will never forget. The project’s sophisticated viewing technologies immerse visitors in stunning settings and beautiful skies, while expert guides share the science and stories of what lies above us. The Dark Sky project hopes to spark a passion for dark sky appreciation through all their stargazing experiences. From the exclusive Summit Experience at Mt John Observatory (in partnership with the University of Canterbury), where you can view for miles on mountaintops, to the world’s first indoor experience, “The Dark Sky Experience,” which unites science, Maori heritage and multi-media installations to create our skies history, there is something for everyone.
You can even enjoy a tasty meal at the Dark Sky Diner or Astro Café before embarking on your stargazing adventures!
Having discovered this project writing this story it’s now firmly on my bucket list!
To plan your trip or find out more about what the Dark Sky project are doing, click here.
The Countryside Charity, UK
The Countryside Charity is on a mission to make green spaces and the countryside accessible to all. They run an annual star count to help highlight where light pollution is a problem, and where the darkest skies are, as well as helping to advocate for better-controlled lighting. Their interactive maps show where you can enjoy truly dark skies and provide a great way to explore light pollution near you, helping you to act in your local area.
To find out more about the Countryside Charity, visit here.
Earth Sky, global
Earth Sky is a nature, earth and sky appreciation site set up by Deborah Byrd, an American science journalist and host of the award-winning radio series, “Earth Sky: A Clear Voice for Science”. On her site, Deborah shares her love for the skies above us. Her global interactive map detailing the “best places to stargaze” inspires a worldwide interest in dark skies appreciation and her informative blogs provide a scientific insight into space, star patterns, moon phases and the skies. Earth Sky also has an incredible live guide to what sky watchers can expect to see from Northern and Southern Hemispheres! Explore more of Deborah’s work here.
International Astronomical Union, global
The IAU’s Dark and Quiet Skies project raises awareness about the need to preserve dark and quiet skies. Through the project, people can learn about the importance of dark skies for human culture, heritage, and health as well as the use of dark and quiet skies for astronomy research.
The project website is full of information and resources and includes listings of events, programmes and publications dedicated to protecting dark skies.
More information on the IAU and their resources can be found here.
Go Stargazing, UK
Go Stargazing has a complete collection of all the top spots in the UK, all displayed on their user-friendly, interactive map. They also provide tips on what to take, when is best to go and what to look out for when stargazing! You can also follow them on Instagram for breath-taking shots of the galaxy!
We hope you enjoyed reading our guide about the dark skies and can take advantage of some of the things we have listed.
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