Six Star Magazine - Dark Sky Preserves

I wrote about dark sky preserves for Six Star, the magazine for Canadian Subaru owners. These parks are areas with strict guidelines restricting the amount of light pollution, allowing visitors to see the full spectrum of the dazzling night sky, something becoming more difficult each day in our increasingly illuminated world. Full story below. 

Starry, Starry Night

The universe is a big and lonely place. Luckily for us, mankind has always had company. From the very start we've been able to look up and admire the stars. Although they're billions of miles away, their nightly shining helps shrink the universe just a little bit, and so for years beyond counting we've looked up and wondered at those lights in the sky. They foretold the future, told us when to sow seeds and when to harvest them, when the rains would arrive and when they'd depart. We used them to weave the stories that helped us make sense of the world. They led our way across oceans and mountains. They've always had our back. 

But this generation might be the first to look up into the night sky and see, well, nothing at all. 

Most people are familiar with the pollution of our air, water, and soil. But there's another, less obvious kind that humanity is pumping into nature: light. Our cities are growing, and as they do they're wiping the stars from the night sky, leaving in their place a depthless orange haze hanging just above the rooftops. 

A recent study in Science Advances magazine estimates that fully one third of humanity can no longer see the Milky Way, that effervescent backdrop to the stars. That's sixty percent of European citizens and eighty percent of Americans. Just decades ago a typical person could look up and marvel at the four thousand stars visible to the naked eye. Today the average city dweller sees less than a hundred. 

The stars have floated up there for billions upon billions of years, and it only took us a century to snuff them out. 

The countless lights that line our streets don't just illuminate the ground; they needlessly beam light in every direction. On overcast nights cities announce themselves a hundred miles away as a dull glow on the horizon. Some estimates say that 40% of a typical city's electric usage is sucked up by this 24-hour grid, often lighting areas that are deserted for hours on end. That wasted energy costs us around 3.5 billion dollars per year. 

Light pollution doesn't just take a toll on our wallets, it harms the natural world as well. Birds that use moon and stars to navigate during migrations can get pulled astray by the alluring glow of a city below. Many of them crash against illuminated skyscrapers and fall to their death. In coastal areas like Florida newborn turtles are disoriented by the brightly lit beachfront properties, scuttling away from the safety of the ocean to certain death. Even when it isn't outright fatal, artificial light can disrupt the delicate cycles of nocturnal animals and even hamper the sleeping patterns of humans.  

Thankfully, a global network of dedicated stargazers, professional and amateur alike, are working to save our skies. To do that they're establishing protected zones across the world known as dark sky preserves.

Much like national parks enforce borders and regulations to protect life on the ground, a dark sky preserve sets rules and regulations as to lighting in a certain area to conserve the darkness of the nighttime sky. They flick the lights out to ensure the stars stay on.

Canada got its first dark sky preserve only in 1999. The Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve is a 1990-hectare parcel of land in the Muskoka region about two hundred kilometres north of Toronto. Regulations restrict the amount and quality of manmade lighting in a five to eight kilometre radius. The Barrens are naturally a great spot for looking up. They're broad and flat, with thin stony soil that has kept to the trees small and stunted, offering a largely unobstructed view from horizon to horizon. The Torrance Barrens preserve was the brainchild of Peter Goering, a retired architect from Toronto and an avid stargazer.

A year later, in April of 2000, the west coast got its own preserve. This time it was helmed by Paul Greenhalgh, a federal officer, amateur astronomer, and president of the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society. Inspired by the Torrance Barrens story, Paul pushed to establish a similar preserve at McDonald Park in Abbotsford, BC, less than 100 kilometres outside Vancouver. 

Paul can trace his love of the stars back to a specific evening. It was November 17, 1966, and he was nine years old. That night was the annual Leonid meteor shower. "At that time," Paul says, "Canada was at the bow of the ship." The earth's position gave Canucks front row seats to one of the most spectacular showers in recent history - records show up to 170,000 shimmering pieces of debris streaking through our atmosphere every hour. Although the Leonid occurs every year around November 18th, a result of Earth's passing through the tail of the Tempel-Tuttle comet, the 1966 shower is remembered as particularly beautiful. About every 30 years the comet glides near the sun, loading even more debris into its tail and 1966 was one such year. "It was like somebody was up there with a grinding wheel," Paul remembers of the resulting light show. "Letting it rip, every colour in the rainbow."

He watched from Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver. Back then the night sky was still perfectly visible over the city. 

Ever since that night Paul has visited the stars as often as possible. But as the years progressed, he says, "astronomers have to go farther and farther and farther afield to study the night sky." When he encountered the story of Peter Goering and the Torrance Barrens, he knew what he had to do. 

McDonald Park is very different from Torrance Barrens, but brings its own advantages to stargazing. The park hugs a curve in the Fraser River where the current slows to a crawl, a lush area where willows drape into the calm water. Just across the river a commanding ridge of the Sumas Mountains juts a thousand feet into the air. Although it blocks the horizon, it also intercepts much of the light from nearby towns. The area is designated a Provincial Agricultural Land Reserve and Flood Plain, so overdevelopment is no issue. 

Upon arrival a series of signs welcomes stargazers and directs them to a circular concrete pad in a clearing at the edge of the park, lined with benches and with plenty of space to set up telescopes. Set in the viewing pad are two dedications to avid astronomers who have passed on. Now they have the perfect view to watch the stars crest the ridge of the mountain. 

Although stars are unfathomably distant, they've been intimately connected with humanity since we first turned our gaze skyward. In 2003 psychologist William Kelly coined the concept of noctcaelador - a combination of the Latin words nocturnus, for night, caelum, sky, and adorare, adore. It was his attempt to articulate the emotional bond between humans and the night sky, and could be considered the battle cry for people like Peter Goering and Paul Greenhalgh. Humanity's fascination with the stars embodies our finest qualities: exploration and curiosity, awe and wonder. No matter where you stand on our planet, you look up at the same sky. So each star we lose represents much more than just a beautiful sight: we give up our sense of place in this vast universe and the greatest parts of ourselves.