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.
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|
In case you haven’t heard the BBC are running another series of Stargazing Live starting on Monday 16 January for three nights. Each hour long programme will be presented by Professor Brian Cox and comedian Dara O’Briain, and will feature a wealth of information about what’s visible in the night sky.
This series will focus on light pollution, and the benefits of a dark sky.
On Wednesday 18 January, Dulverton in Somerset [in Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve] will attempt to become one of the first towns in the UK to have every single one of its lights turned off at the same time, as part of a Stargazing Live demonstration showcasing the beauty of a night sky free of the effects of light pollution.
There are 177 street lights in Dulverton making the night sky significantly brighter and making it much harder to see the stars. At roughly 8.15pm on Wednesday (or at the sound of a unique set of church bells), the Stargazing Live team want every single person in Dulverton to turn off every single light in the town, giving people in the area the unique chance to take in the wonders of the night sky free of the effects of light pollution.
To support this series, and encourage people to get out and look up, the BBC are sponsoring hundreds of events around the country, from planetarium shows to star parties, from lectures to observatory visits. You can find out what’s on near you on their events page.
To find out more about the shows visit their website, where you can view images, download their excellent star guide and activity pack, listen to some audio guides, watch “how to” videos, and take part in live web chats. You can also follow the series on Twitter using the hashtag #BBCstargazing.
Exmoor National Park in the SW of England has just been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve, Europe’s first, by the International Dark Skies Association. This follows three years of work by park authorities, local astronomers, lighting engineers and the resident community, and is a huge achievement.
I first met Emma Dennis, the landscape officer for Exmoor National Park Authority who led the whole process, in 2008 when I brought the idea to her that Exmoor’s dark skies and favourable weather made it an ideal site for a dark sky reserve.
There followed months of painstaking dark sky surveys, some of the most detailed that have been carried out in the UK, as well as the creation of a strict set of lighting controls governing all new developments within the national park.
Amateur astronomers have long known that the skies above Exmoor offer something special – a unique combination of low levels light pollution and regular clear nights, as can be seen in this map produced by the Campaign for Dark Skies.
Dr Nigel Stone, Chief Executive of Exmoor National Park said: “We are delighted that the importance of dark skies, one of Exmoor National Park’s special qualities has received this international recognition and we would like to thank all those who have helped in achieving this International Dark Sky Reserve award. We look forward to welcoming many more visitors in the future to enjoy the starlit skies at night as well as the spectacular scenery Exmoor has to offer during the day.”
This designation was sought for two main reasons: 1. the park authority, working with the Campaign to Protect Rural England, recognises and values tranquility as a key asset, and a dark sky is part of that mission; and 2. there is a real opportunity for Exmoor National Park to extend its tourist season right through the winter months using the dark skies to attract astrotourism, something already being done by Sark and Galloway Forest Park.
Exmoor’s designation now means that the UK has a “full-house” of IDA designations – the only country in the world to have this – in that it has a Dark Sky Park (Galloway Forest Park), a Dark Sky Community (Sark) and a Dark Sky Reserve (Exmoor). The differences between these designations are important. The Dark Sky Park designation is intended for parks with little or no population (the model being US National Parks). Dark Sky Community status is aimed at communities – towns, cities, islands – that want to preserve their night sky. And Dark Sky Reserve status, while meant for large parks also, allows communities to exists within the Reserve, surrounding a dark sky core, which is strictly protected, while public engagement and awareness raising of the issues of light pollution spreads from that core to the surrounding reserve.
Congratulations to all at Exmoor National Park, especially Emma Dennis, who had the vision to make this possible, who have protected Exmoor’s skies from light pollution and preserved them for future generations of stargazers.
|Dark Sky Place||Designation||Date Achieved||Area||Dark Sky Readings (SQM-L)|
|Galloway Forest Park||International Dark Sky Park||Nov 2009||780 km2||21.3 – 21.9|
|Sark, Channel Islands||International Dark Sky Community||Jan 2011||6 km2||21.3 – 21.4|
|Exmoor National Park||International Dark Sky Reserve||Oct 2011||692 km2||21.2 – 21.8|
You can read the press release from Exmoor National Park Authority here.