Sunday marked the start of International Dark Sky Week 20-26 April 2014, a global initiative to get people out of towns and cities and seeing a night sky as it’s meant to be seen, unspoiled by light pollution.
Most of us live in urban environments these days, with the ever-present orange glow lighting the night sky. From my garden in Glasgow I can see only a few hundred start on a clear night. But if I traveled south by car for an hour down to Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, or north by the same distance to Loch Lomond National Park, I’d count thousands of stars.
And then if I made more of an effort to get to the very darkest parts of our country (the heart of Galloway Forest, or Northumberland Dark Sky Park, or up to Coll Dark Sky Island) the number of stars would be overwhelming, too many to count.
At this time of year in the UK (especially in Scotland) you’ve got to wait until quite late to see the sky free of twilight (2230 in Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve for example, 2330 in Coll, and after midnight up in the Orkney Islands), but it’s worth making the effort if it’s clear.
If you do head out this week here are a few things to watch for:
The Lyrids meteor shower will reach its peak on 21/22 April but you might catch some early Lyrids in the days beforehand, and some after the peak; the darker your skies the more you’ll see.
Cygnus the Swan, and the other stars of the Summer triangle will be rising high in the east after midnight. In the right wing of the swan is the star Kepler-186, with the new-found twin Earth, known as Kepler-186f. The star is far, far too faint to see, even with a very powerful telescope, but you can still look in that direction and give a little wave.
There are only two International Dark Sky Islands in the world, and both of them are in the British Isles: Sark in the Channel Islands; and Coll in the Inner Hebrides.
These beautiful short films show what you’ll see on a clear night:
I’ve visited both islands several times, and they’re beautiful places, and not just at night when the stars come out. They’re very different: Sark is lush, with hedgerows and country lanes, and at 49°25′N latitude its climate is very continental. Coll on the other hand is almost entirely treeless, it’s rugged, boasts long sandy beaches, and lies at 56°38′N. Contrary to common impressions of the weather on the west of Scotland, Coll is one of the sunniest parts of Scotland and so has, like Sark, a high number of clear dark nights.
And it’s on dark nights when these islands are at their most stunning. Now that summer’s on its way though the dark nights will shorten and eventually disappear altogether until autumn, so you’ve plenty of time to plan your visit. Sark has a longer dark sky season, running from August till mid-May, as opposed to Coll’s which runs from September till mid-April, but the nights are longer on Coll than on Sark during the darkest winter months, the best time for stargazing.
Make sure that if you’re going to Sark or Coll for stargazing that you avoid the bright moon. Ideally you would be there during a new moon or thin crescent; at the very least you should avoid the week on either side of the full moon. To maximise your chances of seeing the wonderful dark skies make sure you stay for several nights!
The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) announced today it has designated two new International Dark Sky Places in the UK, including one representing the largest land area of protected night skies in all of Europe. This brings to six the total number of IDA International Dark Sky Places in the UK, second only to the United States.
IDA is proud to recognise Northumberland Dark Sky Park and Coll Dark Sky Island for their exceptional efforts in helping preserve and promote dark night skies over Britain. I have worked with both of these areas as a dark skies consultant, advising them on the process of achieving dark sky status. To date this puts the number of dark sky places that I have been heavily involved in to five; more than anyone else in the world, I think!
The reasons for these areas seeking dark sky status are many and varied. Off-season winter astronomy tourism is one main driver, while for councils the economic and environmental benefits of night-sky-friendly zero-waste lighting are paramount. Northumberland County Council have recently announced an investment of £24million to refit all public street lights in the county to energy efficient LED lights, fittings which pay back the initial investment within 6-8 years through reduced operating costs, and which have a significantly reduced carbon footprint, due to their efficiency and the fact that no light is wasted – it all shines down to the ground where it’s meant to be, rather than into the sky.
Northumberland International Dark Sky Park
A UK National Park and adjacent forestry plantation encompassing nearly 580 square miles (1500 km2) of public lands in northern England, Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park are the first IDA-recognized International Dark Sky Park consisting of two independent parkland units.
Once at the frontier of Roman Britain where Hadrian’s Wall repelled Pictish invaders, Northumberland International Dark Sky Park now serves as a bulwark against the incursion of harmful light pollution into one of the darkest locations in England.
With today’s IDA announcement, National Parks UK and Forestry Commission England adds dark skies to their portfolio of protected natural resources including the largest manmade woodland and reservoir in northern Europe. Kielder Forest provides Britain with 200 million board feet (475,000 m3) of timber annually.
The dark night sky attracts an increasing number of visitors to the region. Kielder Observatory, the UK’s largest and most active public observatory, widely promotes local astronomy events and activities. “Dark skies and astronomy have become a passion in the area,” according to Heidi Mottram, Chair of the Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust and Chief Executive of Northumbrian Water.
As both Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park began to vie independently for IDA recognition, it quickly became evident that two heads were better than one. “It made perfect sense to work together to protect one of our greatest assets and make it available to more people,” Mottram said.
Park officials hope that protecting dark skies through the promotion of responsible outdoor lighting will increase the allure of Northumberland as a tourism destination.
“Becoming a Dark Sky Park will reinforce the status of Northumberland as an unspoiled destination offering a true sense of tranquility and wildness – a tonic in this day and age,” said Tony Gates, Chief Executive of Northumberland National Park.
Coll International Dark Sky Island
A sparse population and geographic isolation make the night skies over the Isle of Coll among the darkest in Europe. The island adopted a quality outdoor lighting management plan to ensure Coll remains dark for many future generations of residents and visitors.
Coll lies about six miles (10 km) west of coastal Argyll and hosts just over 200 residents. It attracts dozens of bird species according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which owns an extensive reserve at the west end of the island and hosts one of Coll’s recognized night sky viewing sites on its land. Nature tourism in part draws thousands of visitors to the island each year.
“Achieving dark skies status will be great for the island in many ways,” Julie Oliphant, hotelier at the Coll Hotel, explained. “Not only will it ensure that any future development on the island is done in a way that protects Coll’s natural and unspoiled beauty, but it will also help promote winter tourism.”
Fred Hall of the Argyll and Bute Council echoed the sentiment. “The Isle of Coll is a unique island in many ways, not least of which is its beautiful countryside and sea views but also the lack of light pollution,” he said. “I can think of no better island in the inner Hebrides to gain the Dark Skies accolade.”
Northumberland is IDA’s thirteenth International Dark Sky Park, while the Isle of Coll becomes the world’s fifth International Dark Sky Community. They join four existing International Dark Sky Places in Britain: Galloway Forest Park in Scotland, Isle of Sark in the Channel Islands, Exmoor National Park in England, and Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales.
If you’re interested in gaining dark sky status for your area, then get in touch!
There’s a great piece in Guardian Travel today about stargazing breaks in and around Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park. The article was written by Kevin Rushby, who visited the park earlier this year, and who I took out stargazing on a beautiful night.
It really is an amazing place, and on a clear winter’s night you can see thousands of stars, the Milky Way, shooting stars, nebula, galaxies, satellites… and much more.
But for most people the night sky is a confusing place, and having a guide to lead you around is an ideal way to begin stargazing. (Ahem! A good guide book is handy too…) I run regular stargazing weekends and evenings at a number of hotels near Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park (and one down in Exmoor!) over the course of the winter. Here are the dates for the weekends I have planned for this coming winter:
1-3 November 2013 Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright
29 November – 1 December 2013 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart (SOLD OUT)
6-8 December 2013 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart
31 January 2013 – 2 February 2014 Yarn Market Hotel, Exmoor
28 February – 1 March 2014 Kirroughtree House Hotel, Newton Stewart
28-30 March 2014 Selkirk Arms Hotel, Kirkcudbright
I also run bespoke stargazing nights at Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae.
Today marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of John Muir, the Scottish-born American naturalist, writer, and advocate for the preservation of wild land.
The protection of our wildernesses landscapes (defined as anywhere you cannot see the intrusion of human activity) is more important than ever, with the spread of suburbia and the urbanisation of more than 50% of the world’s population.
But one measure of what makes a wilderness has to-date been largely ignored: that of the darkness of the night sky. After all, if you can see the sky glowing orange at night then you are seeing the intrusion of human activity, and you can’t consider the land you’re in a true wilderness.
John Muir’s legacy as the founding father of the conservation movement lives on today, in part in the organisation The John Muir Trust.
The JMT estimates that the amount of Scotland’s landscape that is wilderness is rapidly diminishing, dropping from 31% of Scotland to 28% between 2008 and 2009, but I think if you added in the spread of man-made light pollution the situation would be decidedly worse.
I am fortunate to have been awarded the JMT’s Bill Wallace award to help fund a trip later this year (once the skies get dark again after the bright summer nights) to map light pollution in one of Scotland’s most wild landscapes, between the JMT properties of Quinag and Sandwood Bay.
Hopefully this project – the first of its kind in this remote area – will shed some light on the problem of the loss of our wilderness nightscapes.
With summer coming to an end in the British Isles we start the return to the dark skies of autumn and winter. Depending on where you are in the country you will have been without truly dark skies for many weeks, maybe even months, as summer evening twilight lasts throughout the night during the summer.
This all-night-long twilight is almost gone throughout the UK, indeed anywhere on the mainland UK can see astronomically dark skies around 1am at the moment. Only the furthest north outpost of the British Isles still doesn’t have that opportunity.
On the island of Unst, the furthest north of the Shetland islands, lies the UK’s furthest-north town, Skaw, at 60°49′N and 00°47′W. This tiny village will see astronomical darkness return at 0043 on 24 August, lasting only 46 minutes until at 0129 the sun’s light begins to creep into the sky again.
The last time that astronomical darkness was seen at Skaw was on 18 April, over four months ago! Indeed this settlement is so far north that between around 13 and 29 June each year they never get out of civil twilight, meaning that the sky’s bright all night long!
Compare this with the furthest south town in the British Isles, Saint Clement in Jersey, in the Channel Islands. Astronomical darkness returned to Saint Clement on 4 July this year, having been absent since 8 June; only four weeks without true darkness!
Such is the effect of differences in latitude that these two settlements, separated by 1299 km, have such hugely different seasonal swings between summer and winter.
Last Saturday night I visited the site of the soon-to-be-open Scottish Dark Sky Observatory. Sitting on a hill top in Craigengillan Estate near Loch Doon, this stunning new public observatory lies on the edge of Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, under some of the darkest skies in the UK.
At the moment the observatory is still under construction, and is due to open in a few months time, at the start of this winter dark sky season. It will be open to the public and school groups for day-time and night-time visits.
The site itself is wonderful, and the observatory is nestled amongst the graggy hill tops east of Ness Glen, just south of the small town of Dalmellington on the A713.
The observatory will include a fully robotic 20” Corrected Dall Kirkham telescope in a 5m dome, operated from either of two control rooms; a roll-off-roof observatory with a 10” SCT for a more hands-on, out in the open observing experience; a multi-purpose lecture room served by a toilet and kitchen and an “outdoor classroom” in the form of an elevated observing deck from which to enjoy the experience of naked-eye observation. Facilities will be provided for amateur astronomers to set up their own equipment and have access to the toilet and kitchen facilities. It will be open to the public, amateur astronomers and to schools and universities, with the aim of inspiring people of all ages and all backgrounds with a sense of wonder at the vastness and beauty of the heavens and the revelation of man’s place within the universe.
The Observatory was the brain child of Craigengillan Estate owner Mark Gibson and the Renfrewshire Astronomical Society (RAS). A member of the RAS, Colin Anderson, is an architect and he designed the buildings. It’s a tribute to Mark, Colin, and others in the RAS that this project is even possible, and I for one cannot wait to observe from their incredible new observatory.
The global family of International Dark Sky Places – areas with stunning night skies and exemplary lighting controls to preserve those skies – has grown again recently, with the addition of some huge parks and reserves. There are currently (as of June 2012) 18 places around the world that satisfy the International Dark-sky Association‘s (IDA) requirements.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit 12 out of these 18 incredible places, including the two most recent additions to the IDA family, NamibRand Nature Reserve in Namibia, and Aoraki Mackenzie in New Zealand, both of which have been awarded International Dark Sky Reserve status this year.
The IDA has three different designations: International Dark Sky Park (IDSP), International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR), and International Dark Sky Community (IDSC).
IDSPs are areas of public land that are near-empty wildernesses, and which have enacted strict controls of outside artificial lighting throughout the entire park. There are currently ten IDSPs.
IDSRs are large areas centred on a dark sky core, a significant area – an observatory, say – in need of protection against light pollution, and a 15km-minimum buffer zone around that core, encompassing surrounding communities. The communities in the buffer zone have lighting controls that help minimise light pollution in the core area. There are currently four IDSRs.
IDSCs are communities – cities, towns, villages, islands – that have enacted exemplary lighting controls to limit the spread of light pollution into their night skies. There are currently four IDSCs.
The following table has some information about the various International Dark Sky Places:
|Name||Location||Park Area||Designation||Year Designated|
|Aoraki Mackenzie||New Zealand||4300 km2||Reserve||2012|
|Big Bend National Park||Texas, USA||3242 km2||Park||2012|
|Borrego Springs||California, USA||110 km2||Community||2009|
|Cherry Springs State Park||Pennsylvania, USA||4.3 km2||Park||2008|
|Clayton Lake State Park||New Mexico, USA||1.9 km2||Park||2010|
|Exmoor National Park||England, UK||692 km2||Reserve||2011|
|Flagstaff||Arizona, USA||255 km2||Community||2000|
|Galloway Forest Park||Scotland, UK||780 km2||Park||2009|
|Geauga Observatory Park||Ohio, USA||4.5 km2||Park||2011|
|Goldendale Observatory State Park||Washington, USA||0.2 km2||Park||2010, provisional|
|The Headlands of Emmet County||Michigan, USA||2.2 km2||Park||2011|
|Homer Glen||Illinois, USA||58 km2||Community||2011|
|Hortobagy National Park||Hungary||800 km2||Park||2011|
|Mont Megantic||Quebec, Canada||5000 km2||Reserve||2008|
|NamibRand Nature Reserve||Namibia||1722 km2||Reserve||2012|
|Natural Bridges National Monument||Utah, USA||31 km2||Park||2006|
|Sark||Channel Islands, UK||5.4 km2||Community||2011|
|Zselic Landscape Protection Area||Hungary||90.4 km2||Park||2009|
I recently attended the Third International Starlight Conference held by the Starlight Initiative near Lake Tekapo, New Zealand. The conference brought together a huge range of specialists who seek to limit the excesses of light at night, and the venue sat in the recently-announced Aoraki / Mount Cook International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR) in New Zealand’s stunning south island.
The beauty of the night sky from somewhere like Tekapo is astounding, and the IDSR status will help keep it that way, limiting the amount of lighting that can spill into the sky from the surrounding communities. Under such starry skies it’s easy to understand why we’d want to protect them, but for most of the population of the planet starlight is becoming increasingly more elusive.
To help emphasise the importance of a dark starry sky the conference looked to build upon a document written at the first Starlight Conference in La Palma, in 2007, the Starlight Declaration in Defence of the Night Sky and the Right to See the Stars.
The Starlight Declaration states:
a. An unpolluted night sky that allows the enjoyment and contemplation of the firmament should be considered an inalienable right equivalent to all other socio-cultural and environmental rights. Hence the progressive degradation of the night sky must be regarded as a fundamental loss.
b. Knowledge—armed with education—is a powerful vector that can heal the growing rift between today’s society and science and contribute to the advancement of mankind as a whole. The dissemination of astronomy and of the scientific and associated cultural values should be considered as basic contents to be included in educational activities.
d. Control of obtrusive light must be a basic element of nature conservation policies since they impact on several species, habitats, ecosystems, and landscapes.
c. Protection of the astronomical quality of areas suitable for the scientific observation of the Universe must be given priority in national and international scientific and environmental policies.
e. The intelligent use of artificial lighting that minimizes sky glow and avoids obtrusive visual impact on both humans and wildlife should be promoted. This strategy would involve a more efficient use of energy so as to meet the wider commitments made on climate change, and for the protection of the environment.
f. Tourism, among other players, can become a major instrument for a new alliance in defence of the quality of the nocturnal skyscape. Responsible tourism, in its many forms, can and should take on board the night sky as a resource to protect and value in all destinations.
Necessary measures should be implemented to involve all parties related to skyscape protection to raise public awareness—be it at local, regional, national, or international level—about the contents and objectives of the International Conference in Defense of the Quality of the Night Sky and the Right to Observe Stars, held in the Island of la Palma.
Dated 20 April 2007, La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain
This blog post is a copy of one which I wrote for the Guardian Science blog, posted there on 13 April 2012.
The small South Atlantic island of Saint Helena is about as remote as any place on Earth gets. It lies 2000km from Africa and 3000km from South America, and I’m heading there for eight days this month to carry out a dark sky survey.
This survey will allow me to determine the quality of the night sky above Saint Helena – the darkness of the sky, but also the clarity of the stars – in anticipation of the island becoming an International Dark Sky Place, a designation awarded by the International Dark-sky Association (IDA).
Light pollution is a common problem for astronomers living near cities; a familiar orange glow drowning out the light from all but the brightest stars in the night sky. With the spread of suburbia there are increasingly fewer places where stargazers can enjoy an unspoiled dark sky, but the further you travel from urban areas the more stars you will see, and Saint Helena as about as far as it’s possible to be from the next town.
Under such dark skies the Milky Way can be seen stretching from horizon to horizon in an arc overhead, and the heavens are studded with thousands of stars and many nebulae, including the dramatic Magellanic clouds not visible from far northern latitudes. Indeed its location at 16° south of the equator means that virtually every constellation is on display at some time throughout the year.
Saint Helena’s Astronomy Heritage
Saint Helena has long been used by astronomers as a site for making important observations. Edmund Halley – he of comet fame – visited the island in 1677 to catalogue the southern stars and observe a Transit of Mercury. The following century, in 1761 Neville Maskelyne, later to become Astronomer Royal, came to observe a much rarer Transit of Venus. (Incidentally, a Transit of Venus occurs this year on 5/6 June, only the fifth to occur since 1761, and the last for over 100 years).
The Dark Sky Survey
During the survey I’ll be using a Sky Quality Metre (SQM) to assess the brightness overhead. This device measures sky brightness in units of magnitudes per square arcsecond (magnitudes are a measure of brightness, the lower the number the brighter the sky; square arcseconds are a measure of area, where one arcsecond is 1/3600 of a degree).
In my back garden in the suburbs of Glasgow the SQM reads around 18 magnitudes per square arcsecond; in the centre of Glasgow it might read 16. The darkest readings come from remote places like Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park where 21.7 isn’t uncommon. In the very darkest places the limit of the device comes from the brightness of the stars overhead, and so you can’t expect readings much darker than 22.0 even in sites free of light pollution.
As well as these SQM readings I’ll be estimating the naked-eye limiting magnitude (NELM) of the night sky above Saint Helena. This basically involves looking for the faintest star I can see and reading its magnitude from a star atlas. In a city the NELM might be 3 or 4; in Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park it might reach 6.5 or even 7, where the only limit to what you can see is your eyesight.
Dark Sky Tourism
So why go to all this trouble? Well, an extensive dark sky survey is just one of the criteria expected of an International Dark Sky Place. Once this survey work is carried out, along with a lighting audit and adoption of new lighting codes on the island, the IDA might confer this status on Saint Helena. And the drive for all this work? Tourism. At the moment Saint Helena’s tourism is based almost exclusively on Napoleon’s exile there between 1815 and 1821. The Island also has several hundred species of flora and fauna which only found on this remote Island and is steeped in history from the Age of Discovery when it was a crucial staging post for sailing ships. The island attracts around 1000 visitors per year.
The main difficulty for the prospective visitor is travel to the island. The only way of getting there right now is on the RMS Saint Helena, on a six-day ocean voyage from Cape Town, something that may deter all but the most determined traveller. Come 2015 however, the island will have its own air strip, making it more accessible and tourism visits more regular.
The Saint Helena Tourism Association hopes to attract visitors with the prospect of the stunningly dark skies above the island. The concept of dark sky tourism has been growing over the past few years. There are currently 16 International Dark Sky Places recognised by the IDA, including three in the UK: Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, Sark Dark Sky Island, and Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve. These sites are seeing an increase in visitor numbers in the dark winter season as keen stargazers, inspired perhaps by Prof Cox, flee the bright city lights for darker skies.