For too many of us, getting a glimpse of the full panoply of the night sky has become a rare event. Only when in a national park or driving through acres on acres of farmlands and away from urban centers can we behold all the constellations. People are just starting to realize that it’s necessary to take efforts to prevent the spread of light pollution. The constant glare of bright electric lights uses up energy (and has led the city of Paris to turn off the lights in some areas) and some are starting to seek out more sustainable ways to light up the outdoors.
The Tucson-based International Dark Sky Association (IDA) seeks to preserve the night and its beauty, to protect wildlife and save energy by reducing light pollution. Some $2.2 billion is wasted every year in the United States alone due to excessive and unnecessary lighting. The loss of “natural nights” wreaks havoc on humans’ circadian rhythms with adverse effects on our health.
In recognition of how important the night sky is, the IDA awards dark sky status to parks, reserves and other communities around the world. Here are ten places where the night sky is protected and lighting controls are in place to prevent light pollution:
1. The Northumberland Park Area, London, England
Credit: Northumberland National Park
As of December 9, the 579 square miles of the Northumberland Park area have been given not just dark sky status, but gold status. As Steve Owens, dark skies consultant and chair of the IDA’s development committee, says, “The quality of Northumberland’s night sky, and the huge efforts made by local communities to preserve them, make Northumberland Dark Sky Park a gold tier site, and one of the best places to stargaze in Europe.”
Plans are underway to further develop the park’s Kielder Observatory. As director Gary Fildes says, one 80-year-old woman who saw Saturn was simply shocked to see the ringed planet. “She’ll have been through World War Two and went through some incredible things in her life, and for the first time in her 80 years she saw the planet Saturn for the first time, and saw it for herself, and that one moment alone was worth building the observatory for,” Fields comments.
2. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah, USA
Photo via Brian Yeung/Flickr
Located some 50 miles northwest of the Four Corners boundary of Utah, Natural Bridges National Monument was the first to be named an international dark sky park in 2007. According to the National Park Service, you can see 15,000 stars in the skies above the national parks, in contrast to only 500 in urban areas. At the National Bridges moment, there is a “stunning river of light formed by the Milky Way rising over Owachomo Bridge” that thanks to the IDA designation, is visible to visitors.
3. Death Valley National Park, California, USA
Photo via Gord McKenna/Flickr
The lowest point in the United States is located in Death Valley National Park; it now also bears the distinction of being the largest international dark sky park. Due to its distance from major cities, the view of the night sky from the desert floor is “pristine” and “in many places, offers views close to what could be seen before the rise of cities.” Visitors can actually see how extensive the Milky Way is, follow the path of a lunar eclipse or witness a meteor shower.
4. Zselic National Landscape Protection Area, Zselic Region,Hungary
In heavily populated and industrialized Europe, finding a dark sky area is not easy. The Zselic region is located in the southwestern part of Hungary, far from the capital of Budapest in the northwest. 10,500 hectares, much of which is woodlands, is protected. On a clear night, the “artificial component of luminance of the nocturnal sky” is actually less than the natural aspects, making it possible to see the Milky Way and the Zodiac.
Only a few forestry- and recreational-related structures can be found inside the park itself. Light management plans are being implemented in nearby villages, to keep Zselic’s sky dark.
5. The Headlands, Michigan, USA
To help you get the best experience of the night sky above this park in Emmet County, Michigan, you can view a Skymap showing what constellations can be seen and also check out the one-mile long Dark Sky Discovery Trail that leads to a designated viewing area to view the park’s night sky.
By giving areas dark sky status, the IDA also seeks to educate the public about the need to preserve the sky. To this end, Emmet County Staff organized a “Lights Out Across the Straits” event this past August, asking residents and business owners to please turn out the lights (all the better to witness the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower on August 12). The event was also a reminder that, amid the fireworks and laser displays of summer, it’s worth enjoying the light shows that nature herself offers.
6. Aoraki Mackenzie, New Zealand
Photo via Earth & Sky Ltd.
The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR) includes Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park and the Mackenzie Basin and is comprised of 1,600 square miles of New Zealand’s South Island; its night skies are almost “totally free from light pollution.” The site hosts the Mt. John Observatory (with tours during the night as well as the day) and also offers guided starlight tours (pdf).
Giving this area dark sky status was especially significant as, among the indigenous Maori, the night sky was key to navigation and also served to integrate “astronomy and star lore into their culture and daily lives.”
7. NamibRand Nature Reserve, Southwestern Namibia
Photo via Jeremy T. Hetzel/Flickr
This private nature reserve in Southwestern Namibia on the Namib Desert seeks to conserve not only wildlife (including leopards, jackals, hyenas, zebras, giraffes and baboons) but has also devoted itself to preserving the night sky. The communities nearest to the reserve are small and about 60 miles away (pdf). That is, the dark sky at night is being considered an “indigenous natural resource” just as much as the many animals who make their home in the reserve.
8. Brecon Beacons National Park, southern Wales, UK
Sheep outnumber people 30 to 1 in this park in southern Wales; it can be described as a “secluded utopia for stargazing and appreciating the natural nighttime environment.” Those who live within the park’s borders are encouraged to reduce their light pollution to maintain its unique sights and also to get to know nocturnal creatures including “barn owls, lesser horseshoe bats and other bat species, foxes, badgers, dormice, hedgehogs, moths and insects,” all of whom need the dark to hunt their prey — all over-lighting of the night impinges on these animals habitats and efforts to survive.
9. Flagstaff, Arizona, USA
Photo via Ross Manges/Flickr
The IDA also recognizes communities that are seeking to “achieve a community-wide lighting code, promote responsible lighting, dark sky stewardship, and exist as an example to surrounding communities on the possibilities available with the proper lighting.” Flagstaff was the first to receive the status of an International Dark Sky City in 2001. Its residents don’t need to travel far to be able to gaze at the stars and enjoy the natural night.
10. Borrego Springs, California, USA
Photo via Anthony Citrano/Flickr
Borrego Springs in San Diego County is also a certified international dark sky community. It is surrounded on four sides by Anza-Borrego State Park, whose 600,000 acres make it the largest state park in the U.S. With fewer than 4,000 residents, Borrego Springs would be unlikely to make much of light footprint. The pristine quality of the community’s skies are notable because, as Oregon Live points out, Los Angeles, Coachella Valley, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Mexicali and San Diego-Tijuana all surround Borrego Springs.
Nights have been getting longer and will until the winter solstice on December 2013. Rather than turning on as many lights as possible, why not look up into the sky at night and see what you can see?
Top photo via Earth & Sky Ltd.