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If you’ve ever gazed up at the night sky from a remote destination far from city lights, you’ve likely marveled at the overwhelming number of dazzling stars and celestial bodies visible against the inky black backdrop. Seeing the Milky Way (an easily identifiable wide band of bright stars that make up our galaxy) stretching across the sky is an unforgettable sight. However, when most of us stargaze from our home, we only see the moon, a scattering of stars, and maybe Venus. Thanks to an overabundance of manmade illumination, the skies are no longer dark enough to see the Milky Way. Fear not: now it’s easier to find places where you can still see the night skies brilliantly lit with stars, thanks to the International Dark Sky Places program.
What Is the International Dark Sky Places Program?
In places around the globe with few manmade lights, the night skies are ablaze with stars, planets, satellites, asteroids, and other celestial bodies. The International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) program is a conservation initiative launched in 2001 by the International Dark-Sky Association. The IDSP program guides communities, parks, and other jurisdictions on preserving and protecting areas where the sky is still dark enough to enjoy exceptional stargazing. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is the world’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the night sky from light pollution.
The IDSP program formally recognizes communities, parks, and other locales worldwide that follow guidelines and practices that reduce excessive or misdirected artificial light, which is known as light pollution. To earn an official IDA’s Dark Sky Place designation, these areas must demonstrate robust community support and meet various requirements. Since it’s not feasible for stargazers and photographers to travel to a remote desert or into the middle of the ocean to admire a spectacular night sky, the IDA strives to find easily accessible places.
Light Pollution Explained
Light pollution occurs when excessive artificial light from streetlights, vehicles, sports venues, residential buildings, advertising, commercial properties, parking lots, factories, and offices illuminate the night sky to the point where it causes detrimental effects to the environment. While we need electric lighting to engage in normal nighttime activities, the light emitted from these places can be harmful.
Being unable to see an abundance of stars might seem like a minor problem only astronomers care about, but just like water, land, and air pollution, light pollution negatively impacts the environment, ecosystems, wildlife, and humans. Light pollution occurs in various forms.
Urban skyglow is the brightening effect that envelops a city or urban corridor — obscuring the night sky across an entire area. Often, artificial light that shines into the atmosphere hits structures, clouds, and air pollution and is reflected back to the ground, which is called backscatter. The backscatter creates a diffused glow, which is particularly visible on the horizon from ships at sea, aircraft, or even when driving from a remote area toward an urban one. This time-lapse video on the IDA’s website shows the Milky Way above the Great Plains with an urban skyglow on the horizon.
Glare is excessive brightness that interferes with our vision and causes a loss of contrast and discomfort — especially while driving at night and as we age. Glare can increase the risk of car accidents.
Light trespass is unwanted light shining into a property. If you’ve ever had a streetlamp, your neighbors’ outdoor lights, or headlights shine into your bedroom while you’re trying to sleep, you’ve experienced light trespass. Light trespass can disrupt sleep cycles and lead to health problems.
Light clutter is bright, excessive groupings of lights that are common in inhabited areas, over-lit cities, and along roads where streetlights are poorly designed.
Over-illumination is excessive light typically used to showcase buildings, landmarks, monuments, statues, and other structures.
Frequency of Light Pollution
Surprisingly, it’s not just urban areas that feel the impact of light pollution. According to the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, 80% of the world’s population lives with light pollution. In Europe and the U.S., the number increases to 99%. Kuwait, Singapore, and Qatar rank among the top countries with the highest level of light pollution.
To see the amount of light pollution in a specific area, enter an address into this color-coded interactive map from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado – Boulder. The scale ranges from white to black, while areas highlighted in lighter and more red-tinged colors indicate a higher artificial light level.
Impacts of Light Pollution
Astronomers who struggle to study celestial bodies are not the only ones affected by excessive artificial light. Growing research is finding tangible, measurable impacts on humans, wildlife, ecosystems, and the environment. Excessive exposure to light disrupts the dark-light cycles that humans, plants, and animals rely on to regulate bodily functions and sleep. Light pollution also wastes money and energy.
How To Reduce Light Pollution
Fortunately, light pollution is reversible. Simple steps such as shielding outdoor lights, pointing them down, reducing unnecessary lighting, replacing inefficient bulbs, turning off lights at night (especially in high-rise office buildings), and using motion detector lighting and timers can go a long way toward reducing and reversing light pollution.
Where To Find International Dark Sky Places
The IDA recognizes five types of dark sky places. As of February 2020, the IDA’s International Dark Sky Places list contains 130 entries, which you can find on this interactive list. Surprisingly, many are not far from urban areas.
International Dark Sky Communities
An IDA International Dark Sky Community can be a city, town, municipality, or other legally organized community that implements and enforces quality outdoor lighting, dark sky education, and citizen support. Twenty-two of the 29 IDA Dark Sky Communities are located in the U.S., mostly in western states such as Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Texas.
International Dark Sky Parks
IDA International Dark Sky Parks can be publicly or privately owned land with exceptional starry nights and a protected environment that enhances night sky viewing. Sixty of the 83 parks on the International Dark Sky Parks list are U.S. state and national parks and monuments. Most of these parks offer astronomy programs to help visitors learn about the spectacular wonders on display in the heavens above.
Well-known national parks include the Grand Canyon, Great Sand Dunes, Big Bend, Bryce Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley. Spain, the U.K., Hungary, The Netherlands, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Croatia, Taiwan, and South Korea are among other countries with parks on the IDA’s list.
International Dark Sky Reserves
Like dark sky parks, International Dark Sky Reserves are publicly or privately owned lands that meet minimum sky quality and natural darkness criteria. They must have a peripheral area that supports dark sky preservation. The Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve is the only U.S. reserve currently on the list of 16 — most are in Europe.
International Dark Sky Sanctuaries
International Dark Sky Sanctuaries are protected public or private lands that meet similar criteria as other dark sky places. They differ from parks and reserves due to their locations; they tend to be in remote areas with limited public outreach opportunities. The IDA identifies these sanctuaries as a way to increase public awareness and promote conservation.
Of the 13 sanctuaries on the list, six are in the U.S. (New Mexico, Texas, Minnesota, Maine, Utah, and Nevada). The sanctuary in Nevada, Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area, earns the reputation for being one of the darkest places in the Lower 48. The nearest urban areas are over 150 miles away. At 1,098,000 acres, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Dark Sky Sanctuary happens to be the world’s largest.
Urban Night Sky Places
Urban Night Sky Places lack the darkness and ideal stargazing opportunities that other dark sky places offer. However, the IDA recognizes urban parks and municipal open spaces that use planning, design, and education to promote “an authentic nighttime experience in the midst of significant artificial light.” Currently, only Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge near Albuquerque is the only such venue on the IDA’s list.
Beyond IDA Dark Sky Places
Of course, you don’t have to travel to an official IDA Dark Sky Place to stargaze. Any place where you can escape light from urban areas will have darker skies where you can see more stars. For optimum stargazing, choose a night when the moon is only a sliver or not visible. You can download apps such as Star Tracker, Google Sky, and Sky Safari to your phone to help you identify planets, stars, constellations, and other objects in real time. Some apps will even identify a celestial body or constellation when you point your phone toward it.
The International Space Station passes overhead every 90 minutes and is the third brightest object in the sky (like the moon, it reflects sunlight and doesn’t produce its own light). NASA offers a helpful map: just enter your address to access a list of local places and times to see it. If you have never observed the majestic beauty of a dark sky and the Milky Way, head to an IDA Dark Sky Place or simply out to a remote area for a memorable experience.