Part One of a two-part series on light pollution and dark sky conservation and tourism.
Few experiences instill more wonder than sitting outside on a summer night and looking up at the stars. Locating constellations, spying satellites and hoping for the flash of a falling meteor are pastimes sure to fill you with a sense of awe. But finding a place for serious stargazing can be a challenge. Until you’ve seen a truly dark sky, you don’t even know what you’re missing. Part One of this two-part series explores the need to protect and promote our natural starscapes. Stay tuned for Part Two, to find the best places to view the night sky.
Starlight: A vanishing natural resource
Earlier this summer I was in Botswana, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert more than 500 miles from any major city. As darkness fell over our safari camp, it seemed like the sky was clouding up. Only it wasn’t: there were just so many stars visible that the entire heavens were aglitter. Under a new moon, the Milky Way sprawled across the sky in a thick smear of silver.
It’s rare to see a sky full of stars like I did on those magical African nights. Urbanization, with its attendant light pollution, has eclipsed such views for more than two-thirds of the earth’s people. Most children growing up in the U.S. or Western Europe will never see the Milky Way outside of a science textbook. Even standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, the brightest feature of the sky is not starlight but the glow of Las Vegas 175 miles away.
Just as silent places are disappearing, so, too, are dark skies. Long an inspiration to humankind, the night sky is now largely unknown to a younger generation. Fewer than 200 stars are typically visible to city dwellers. In contrast, 15,000 stars are on display in the least-disturbed night skies; so many that it is difficult to pick out constellations. Such dark skies are generally found in very remote locations, however, which may involve significant effort to reach.
The importance of protecting dark places
The loss of natural dark is not without significant impacts. As 24/7 urban-light sprawl covers ever more of the earth, natural habitats are altered, ecosystems disrupted, sleep cycles of humans and nocturnal animals are altered, and awareness of the cosmos is diminished.
Reflecting concern that an essential element of human civilization and culture is being lost, the United Nations has declared “the right to starlight” part of our common heritage. Similar to its establishment of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO has announced plans to create Starlight Reserves, dedicated to preserving the quality of the night sky where access to starlight is maintained for natural, cultural and scientific purposes.
The International Dark Sky Association works to preserve starscapes through the establishment of Dark Sky Places, a certified set of parks, reserves and communities intent on protecting or restoring natural night.
Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah became the first International Dark Sky Park in 2006, reflecting its status as public land possessing exceptional starry skies and natural nocturnal habitat. Flagstaff, Ariz., earned the first International Dark Sky Community designation in 2001, mitigating artificial light and educating citizens about the value of the night sky as a cultural treasure.
Stargazers who make a serious hobby of pursuing pristine night skies have earned a name for their pastime: astrotourism. Dark sky camps such as New Mexico Skies near Cloudcroft, N.M., are set up to cater to amateur astronomers, with observatories and high-powered telescopes available for rent.
But you needn’t go to such lengths to enjoy seeing the Milky Way in all its glory with the naked eye. There are plenty of places where travelers can experience the night sky as it has existed for millennia.