A Stargazer’s Guide to Protected Dark Skies
For millennia, human beings have gazed into the firmament and been awed by the thousands of stars, galaxies, nebulae and other cosmic wonders visible to the naked eye. But in recent generations, much of humanity has become divorced from these marvels. Today, at least 80 percent of people living in the United States and Europe are so inundated with light pollution that they can't even see our own Milky Way, let alone our neighboring galaxies like Andromeda.
In response to this creeping celestial blindness, conservation groups around the world have designated dark-sky parks, preserves and sanctuaries—places where light pollution remains at a minimum and it is still possible to see an unblemished night sky. As with all conservation efforts, appreciation is key: We only work to protect what we know and love.
Here are some of the best places around the world to take in the stars.
Colorado Plateau, United States
By day, the Colorado Plateau delights visitors with its many national parks and monuments that boast unique rock formations and dramatic vistas: The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Canyon de Chelly. At night, Red Rock Country fades to black and the spectacle moves overhead. A dazzling night sky requires remoteness, and with 130,000 square miles of largely uninhabited desert across the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, the Colorado Plateau delivers. The place is speckled with what the International Dark-Sky Association calls "gold-tier" dark-sky parks—areas that actively protect their starscapes from light pollution. One of these, Natural Bridges National Monument, was the first dark-sky park ever designated: It is arguably the darkest national park unit in the Lower 48, and hosts astronomy ranger programs throughout the summer.
Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, United States
In December, the International Dark Sky Association designated more than 1,400 square miles of Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness as the United States' first dark sky reserve. Like dark sky parks, reserves protect the night skies with light pollution controls, though they also include pristine "core" dark zones, which makes them even rarer. Central Idaho's reserve is one of only 12 in the world. Around its periphery, dark sky ordinances require shields atop street and residential lights. But in the core, rugged terrain has warded off development and manmade light is practically nonexistent. By day, visitors enjoy vistas of the Rockies and their glacial lakes and perennial snow fields. By night, stargazers marvel at interstellar dust clouds, where our galaxy's planets and stars are born.
The Outback, Australia
The outback encompasses much of mainland Australia, and its two and a half million square miles of arid, largely uninhabited land is almost completely free of light pollution. This is one of the best places to admire the sky in the Southern Hemisphere. The prevalence of starlight is so great in the Australian outback, that some aboriginal peoples identified patterns not in the stars themselves, but in the darkness between them. If you head out during Milky Way Season (that's March through October, no matter which hemisphere you're gazing from), you'll be able to look straight into the center of our galaxy. Pitch your tent at Ayers Rock Campground—only 10 miles from the spectacular sandstone formation of Uluru—to take in the sky from the outback's center. If you want magnification, head to Milroy Observatory in New South Wales: It's the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere that's open to the public.
Grasslands National Park, Canada
Just north of Montana, amid the Saskatchewan prairie, is one of the darkest stargazing spots in all of Canada—which, considering Canada has more than half of the world's dark sky preserves, is saying something. On the Bortle Scale, which measures the brightness of the night sky, Grasslands National Park measures at 1, which is as good as it gets. Out there, the sky bedazzles visitors with celestial objects like nebulae that are visible to the naked eye. Astronomers say the Milky Way is so bright in Grasslands National Park that it casts shadows on the ground. Venture to the park's East Block for the darkest of skies.
Atacama Desert, Chile
High, dry, and with a near-guaranteed clear sky, Chile's Atacama Desert has the weather and the altitude to deliver top-notch starscapes. It's one of the driest places on Earth, which means celestial objects are extra-crystal-clear (humidity has the opposite effect). Because of this, astro-tourists aren't the only ones looking to the sky: The Atacama region boasts a slew of observatories, from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array to the Very Large Telescope. Head south to the Elqui Valley and you'll find the AURA Observatory, the world's first International Dark Sky Sanctuary. This designation is only given to the remotest of starry skies—places where starlight conservation is of the utmost importance.
Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada
Situated along the boundary of the Northern Territories and Alberta, Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest dark-sky preserve on the planet, boasting a staggering 11 million acres of protected land—an area larger than Denmark. Given its outstanding ecological and biological value, it's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protecting bison and whooping cranes as well as starlight. If you want a chance to marvel at the northern lights, Wood Buff is the place to do it: The park's latitude and flat, open plains often lead to shimmering displays of green. It's not too crowded, either, which means you can take in the aurora borealis in peace. Unless, that is, you prefer to share the merriment of the night-sky light show, in which case you should go in August, for the park's Dark Sky Festival.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii, United States
When it comes to stargazing, the only thing better than the remoteness of an open ocean is the dry, high altitude of land. The dormant volcano of Mauna Kea on Hawaii's Big Island offers both. Lighting restrictions on the island minimize light pollution, as does the fact that Hawaii sits in the midst of the vast (and dark) Pacific Ocean. And what about the humidity so common in the tropics? Thanks to a tropical inversion cloud layer that's 2,000 feet thick, the upper stretches of the mountain are kept dry and largely clear. It's such an ideal spot that the summit boasts the world's largest observatory for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy. And not far below, at an elevation of 9,200 feet, the Mouna Kea Visitor Center offers stellar views and free stargazing programs each night.
Save Your Starlight
Claiming your right to starlight starts with seeking out dark skies like the ones mentioned above. You can also use tools like the Dark Sky Finder, which maps out where stars are most visible. Bring friends and family with you, so you can further cultivate awe for the heavens.
To learn about starlight-friendly practices, and to get information on outdoor lighting ordinances that protect starscapes in your area, go to the International Dark Sky Association's website: darksky.org
Sabine Bergmann is a professional writer, traveler and conservation activist. She writes for a dozen publications and is the managing editor of the Adventure Collection travel blog, which publishes award-winning writers from around the world.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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