An Agate Original
Most of us treasure the moments when we can see the stars. Not just the few brightest stars that manage to shine through urban glare, but a whole skyful of stars, gleaming and twinkling like friends, however far away. As we gaze up, we can’t help being moved by the idea that our Earth is part of an infinite universe, that we are anchored in the arc of the Milky Way and familiar constellations, and that the vastness of space is practically un-knowable.
More and more we must travel to experience such a gift, as urban and suburban lighting covers the globe.
There is a growing movement to protect dark places and reduce the glare from settled places. The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and its local volunteer advocates have designated 170 places, from parks to cities, committed to reducing the harm from urban lighting. The group boasts that it has protected 110,000 sq km around the world (over 42,470 square miles).
How does urban lighting harm us?
Many birds, amphibians, insects, plants, and even humans have evolved to rely on uninterrupted periods of darkness during the night. Lighting can interfere with hunting patterns for predators and prey alike. Untold millions of birds fly into lighted buildings each year, contributing to the alarming depletion of bird populations. Frogs stop calling when there’s too much light. Insects are famously drawn to lights, and disruption of any part of the food web affects other animals.
Human lighting is also typically wasteful. Often overly bright, aimed poorly, and confusing, it can disrupt our sleep, cause accidents, and waste our money. We’ve all heard that nighttime exposure to artificial light suppresses the production of melatonin, which not only helps us sleep but regulates other important healthy processes. This is especially true for the newer, energy-efficient LED bulbs because they create more light on the blue end of the spectrum.
Given how much electricity we waste in faulty home and street lighting, this problem must also be seen as a contributor to climate change.
There has even been research showing that increasing street lighting does not necessarily reduce crime. Light fixtures that are carelessly aimed, improperly shielded, or too bright can actually reduce effective visibility.
The IDA certifies dark sky places after a long process of investigation and action by local governments and community advocates. In 2021, a troika of vast northern parks in the western hemisphere joined the list of IDA-certified dark sky places. Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and Quetico Provincial Park line the border between Minnesota and Canada. These three parks have coordinated their work, including their applications for certification, through the Heart of the Continent Partnership.
Together they comprise a relatively pristine ecosystem of more than five million acres of land so remote from city lights that they stand ready to be preserved rather than needing to be recovered.
One of the locals who helped move the designation forward is Duluth-based Bob King. A retired news photographer, King has long studied astronomy. In college he intended to major in the science, but he struggled with math. “When my advisor told me how much math, physics, and computer science would be required for an astronomy major, I switched to my other love, foreign languages, and kept astronomy as a life-long hobby,” he explained in a telephone interview. That hobby seems to include turning others on to the night sky. He has taught classes, created two blogs, and volunteers to speak to interested groups whenever asked.
One of the requirements for a dark skies park is that it provide programs about the night, the stars, and the importance of darkness for visitors. For nearly two years, King has been creating online educational programs for Voyageurs National Park. It’s been a tough year at all three northern parks, with COVID 19 restrictions and wildfires, but in the future Quetico Provincial Park plans to offer at least four night sky programs yearly, and to work with the Lac La Croix First Nation to develop at least one program that interprets Anishinaabe culture and the night sky. It also intends to offer a lending library for binoculars.
Voyageurs National Park offers a similar set of programs: interpretive programs that include Anishinaabe oral stories about winter constellations; presentations on how wildlife use stars and periods of darkness; information about better outdoor lighting; full moon hikes; dedicated stargazing areas; and even telescopes mounted on tour boats.
The park’s Program Manager for Visitor and Resource Education, Tawnya Schoewe, has a motto: “Half the Park is After Dark.” She explains in an email that Voyageurs has been redesigning and retrofitting its lighting to meet IDA requirements. “When we started the project we were at less than 50% correct lighting and now we are at 86% correct lighting with a target of 100% in 10 years,” she says. The park is now using fixtures that are aimed properly and that shield the light source to minimize glare and light trespass and to facilitate better vision at night.
Cities around the world are working to reduce nighttime glare. Bob King says Duluth and other northern communities have an additional motivation beyond saving money and reducing light pollution. “These cities could capitalize on the fact that they’re great places to look for northern lights,” he says. “There hasn’t been one year since I’ve been here without multiple displays. Some years, I’ve seen displays on 70 nights throughout the year.”
King says there’s been a spike in interest in the aurora borealis. Back in the day, it took special knowledge to photograph the night sky. Now, with digital photography, “people see what others are shooting and sharing on social media. It’s turned into something that everybody wants to see.”
In part because of snow cover, the darkest skies in our region occur in summer and fall, and the best time to see northern lights are spring and fall.
And it’s easier than ever to catch the aurora. Apps for IPhone and Android offer forecasts and likely viewing locations. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a three-day forecast for geomagnetic storms and solar winds. King says a score of five and above promises good viewing in our area.
Globe at Night is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure and submit their night sky brightness observations. Using the app, you can report the faintest star you can see. This information is added to a map published on the web. It’s a way to track dark skies over time, and a way to encourage people to appreciate what’s out there, says King.
Loss of the Light Network encourages and organizes research on the impacts of human lighting and maintains a database of research papers. https://www.zotero.org/groups/2913367/alan_db/library
IDA has a useful website about different types of lighting, where to find sky-friendly lights, and model laws for communities wanting to darken their skies.
Other dark sky places include Wisconsin’s Newport State Park at the tip of Door County, and Michigan’s Headlands County Park at the upper edge of the Lower Peninsula. In Canada, Killarney Provincial Park on Lake Huron, and Lake Superior Provincial Park get high marks for dark skies.
Bob King’s blogs:
Duluth News Tribune (requires subscription)