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 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 was lucky enough to attend the excellent International Dark-skies Association conference in New Jersey, USA, last weekend, and meet many of the amazing people who work to set up Dark Sky Places and combat bad lighting around the world.
I was very chuffed to be awarded the IDA’s “Dark Sky Defender 2011” award for my work in setting up Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, and Sark Dark Sky Island, as well as helping others (such as Exmoor National Park, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, and North Ronaldsay in Orkney) move towards Dark Sky status.
At the conference I was particularly impressed by the work being done in Geauga Park, Ohio, in their Dark Sky Park:
I just heard today that my grant application to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust has been accepted, which means lots of traveling for me later this year!
I applied to the WCMT in late 2010 to visit all of the Dark Sky Places in North America. There are eight of them in total:
- Mont Megantic National Park near Montreal, Canada
- Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania
- Geauga District Park in Ohio
- Goldendale Observatory Park in Washington state
- Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah
- Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico
- Borrego Springs in California
- Flagstaff in Arizona
This first on the list, and the only one not in the USA is the world’s only Dark Sky Reserve, while the final two on the list are Dark Sky Communities. All the others are Dark Sky Parks.
I aim to spend around a week at each one, studying how they engage with local tourism to promote astronomy as a tourist attraction and thereby boost the economy around the Dark Sky Places. I’ll bring that knowledge back to the UK to help the existing (Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park, and Sark, the world’s first Dark Sky Island) and proposed (Exmoor, Peak District, Brecon Beacons, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national parks, and Orkney) Dark Sky Places in the UK.
I’ll be going some time in either September or October 2011, and I’ll be blogging, tweeting and hopefully podcasting throughout my trip.
My thanks go to the WCMT who saw the value in what I proposed to do, and have given me this amazing opportunity!
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/
I just noticed that the short news clip about Sark’s dark skies filmed for channelonline.tv is available online.
You can view it on their website or on Youtube:
One of the Channel Islands could soon be recognised as a top spot worldwide to look at the night sky.
Sark is in the process of applying to become the first Dark Skies Island in the world. It will mean the island having a lighting management plan to make sure that nothing too bright is put outside. The UK’s representative for the International Dark Skies Association has been in Sark to assess the sky and the lights on the island.
Steve Owens is from the International Dark Skies Association: “I’ve found as you would expect that the skies here are very dark, there’s very little light pollution comes from Sark itself. The only real problem you have is from other islands like Guernsey, Jersey and in fact the east coast of France that a tiny little glow on your horizon from those places. But to all intents and purposes you’ve got skies darker than ninety nine percent of people in the UK will ever see.”
Jo Birch from La Societe Sercquaise added: “From a tourism point of view it would be lovely for us to be the sort of place that you don’t have to be an astronomer or a star head you just have to enjoy the night sky, that’s one of them. There is really the sort of let’s do our bit for the environment because if you have effective lighting you probably use less of it and then you have to generate less electricity so that’s always a good thing. I think it just raises the profile of this nice place, let’s conserve it and I would say those three together really, that’s what it’s all about.”
The whole community plus the tourism industry has to be behind the application. Hotels can help by keeping lighting low and providing binoculars and astronomy books for guests. It’s believed that just ten lights need to be changed for the island to be dark enough. So they’re hoping to have the accreditation in place in time to take advantage of the long dark nights next winter.
Final day on Sark. I finished the lighting audit (well, kind of – there are a few houses still to do that Jo Birch will do in my absence) and got to spend a bit of time exploring the island for leisure rather than work.
After my talk last night everyone was “hello”-ing me in the street and stopping to ask more about the dark skies. The most common question is: “so, do we qualify?” which really shows how excitied everyine is, and how seriously they’re all taking it. I began to feel like “Mac” MacIntyre in Local Hero. Except here the phone boxes are green.
Lunch today was a picnic with Sam and Elliot in Dixcart Bay. Elliot had his first paddle in the sea. It was cold and made him cry. But he soon cheered up when the picnic came out.
We rounded the day off with a visit to the Seigneurie, and then home for dinner. I popped out later on to do some star gazing at Felicity Bellfield’s house Beauchamp along with he daugher Lucy, Jo Birch and Jeremy Bateman. It was a lovely clear night and using only binos and a small scope we observed for an hour or so before the cold made us retreat indoors.
I’ll be sad to leave Sark tomorrow; it really is an amazing island, and hopefully soon you’ll hear that they’ve acheived international recognition for their dark skies.