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|
Hilariously, I have been “quoted” in a fictitious article on the website The Spoof. This article boasts the headline: “London Borough Of Ealing Declared International Dark-Sky Reserve”!
The piece continues:
‘London is an international centre of excellence for numerous endeavours,’ explained Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. ‘It was total madness that Londoners had to travel to the mountains of Chile or to Exmoor, wherever they are, to get a decent view of the night sky.’
So the author(s) of the piece know their stuff: the Atacama Desert in Chile is widely recognised as one of the very best places for stargazing on the planet, while Exmoor became an International Dark Sky Reserve in November 2011, following on from Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in 2009, and Sark Dark Sky Island in 2010.
The article introduces me as:
UK astronomer Steve Owens, chair of the IDA‘s Dark Sky Places Development Committee
again true, but not nearly so widely known. They must really have done their homework on this story. They then put words in my mouth that are entirely reasonable:
‘To be declared an International Dark-Sky Reserve,’ he explained, ‘an area must possess an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights. Light pollution from conurbations is the most significant barrier to this aspiration, and areas in London possess quite exceptional challenges in that respect.’
Ha! Very true. Then the article continues:
As part of the bid for Reserve status for Ealing, street lights were disabled within a ten mile radius… In addition, local byelaws were passed to enforce the use of blackout curtains after dark within the Reserve area. Car headlights and other sources of light, necessary to facilitate travel, were required to be red in order to not affect night vision.
From now on my analysis of this article might read as somewhat po-faced, as I point out their errors, but it does at least allow me to talk a little bit about what it means to be a Dark Sky Place.
The IDA doesn’t require the extinguishing of all street lights, nor black out curtains, nor red car headlights. All nice ideas though, from an astronomical point of view. Just not very practical.
The article then quotes several fictitious Londoners:
‘Since the changes, I have been almost constantly working outside at night,’ said emergency paramedic and ambulance crewperson, Ursula Major. ‘I often point out the constellations to distract RTA and other casualties from their injuries.’ [actually, studies have shown no connection between reduced light at night and RTAs.]
‘Sometimes,’ admitted Leo Regulus, an unemployed young person from Boston Manor, ‘I stop when lootin’ from Ealin’ Broadway ta wunda at the splenda of the Miwkey Way. Last week,’ he continued, ‘I even went back ta Argos ta nick a Newtonian reflecta telescope, init.’ [similarly, there is no good evidence that reduced light at night increases crime.]
Astronomers from across the UK have visited Ealing to avail themselves of its crystal clear view of the heavens. ‘Many initially complained about mugging and the loss of equipment,’ admitted sergeant Izar Bootes from the Metropolitan Police, ‘but the ability to repurchase their kit, or better gear, at Leeland Road market on Saturday mornings has more than compensated for such inconveniences.’ [see above]
Even everyone’s favourite astronomer Prof Brian Cox gets a mention:
The quality of the sky over Ealing means that key astronomical features are clearly visible for the first time in over two centuries. The police have been inundated by calls from anxious residents, worried about the appearance of strange white dots in the night sky.
‘It looks like that Brian Cox bloke was telling the truth, after all,’ said one amazed Northfields resident.
Make sure you read the whole article, but remember: the London borough of Ealing isn’t really an International Dark-Sky Reserve!
The Channel Island of Sark has been recognised for the quality of its night sky by the International Dark-sky Association (IDA), who have designated it the world’s first dark sky island, the latest in a select group of dark sky places around the world.
Sark has no public street lighting, there are no paved roads and cars, so it does not suffer from the effects light pollution in the same way as towns and cities do. This means that the night sky is very dark, with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, meteors streaking overhead, and thousand of stars on display.
The announcement was hailed as a great success by astronomers. Prof Roger Davies, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “This is a great achievement for Sark. People around the world are become increasingly fascinated by astronomy as we discover more about our universe, and the creation of the world’s first dark sky island in the British Isles can only help to increase that appetite. I hope this leads to many more people experiencing the wonders of a truly dark sky”.
The award follows a long process of community consultation, which included the assessment of the sky darkness and an audit of all the external lights on Sark. A comprehensive lighting management plan was created by lighting Jim Patterson of the Institute of Lighting Engineers, and many local residents and businesses have altered their lighting to make them more dark sky friendly, ensuring that as little light as possible spills upwards where it can drown out the starlight.
The government of Sark, the Chief Pleas, were supportive from the start. Conseilleur Paul Williams, chair of the Agriculture Committee, which oversees environmental matters, said: “Sark becoming the world’s first dark sky island is a tremendous feather in our environmental cap, which can only enhance our appeal. Sark is a wonderful island and this recognition will bring our uniqueness and beauty to a wider audience.”
This designation means that Sark joins the select group of international sites chosen for their dark skies, including Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, which became Europe’s first International Dark Sky Park in November 2009.
Steve Owens, the dark sky development officer who led Sark’s application to the IDA, recognises the benefits that this might have for the community on Sark: “This is an ideal opportunity to bring stargazers to the island throughout the year, and I think that Sark is about to see a boom in astro-tourism, especially in the winter months. We’ve seen a surge of public interest in astronomy in recent years, with the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 and more recently with the success of BBC Stargazing Live, and it’s great that places like Sark and Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park are allowing people from towns and cities to come and experience a dark sky”.
Sark Tourism: http://sark.info/
International Dark-sky association: http://www.darksky.org/
Campaign for Dark Skies: http://www.britastro.org/dark-skies/