Preserving the Night Sky

Two astronomers discuss why the night sky we see today is different from what our grandparents saw.

Astronomers have a conflicted relationship with the moon. This is something I learned on an unseasonably warm night in September 2015, standing in an open field with amateur astronomer Dick Kirk.

After seeing my partner and I fumbling with our glow-in-the-dark constellation map, Kirk offered to give us a more detailed tour of the night sky. Using his professional-grade telescopic camera, he scrolled through coordinates on his remote control, the scope of the machine adjusting at the push of a button. We observed bright “stars” made up of several smaller stars. We spotted nearby planets, some glowing red or green. We squinted at distant galaxies, the names of which I instantly forgot in a state of sheer wonder.

And then the moon came out. In most places, a full moon is a welcome addition to an empty night sky. But we’re not in a typical place. We are in Grasslands National Park, one of the world’s darkest dark-sky preserves in southern Saskatchewan, just north of Montana. In a place this naturally dark, the rising full moon appeared to us as bright as a sunrise. We discovered that the reflected light from a full moon vanquishes the visibility of surrounding stars in the same way any other man-made light pollution does. While my partner and I naively admired the unexpected brightness now on the horizon, Dick lowered his head. Under his breath, he cursed the moon for forsaking the stars.

Flashback to 2003: a group of scientists and engineers gathered in a celestial research centre in Muskoka, Ontario for the Ecology of the Night Conference. The event focused on discussing the uncertain future of the night sky, including new research regarding the effects of artificial light on human and animal biology. With fewer and fewer accessible places left in this country to experience true, natural darkness, the attendees wanted to better understand the long-term impacts.

We’ve lost our stories about the skies.

One concerned attendee was Robert Dick, a mechanical engineer by trade. Following the conference, Dick and three colleagues started the Canadian Scotobiology Group (CSbG), with a mission to help combat the effects of light pollution throughout Canada. Today, he also manages the Dark-Sky Preserve program at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC).

“Put simply, a dark-sky preserve, is a place that demonstrates an implicit respect for the night environment—that includes people, wildlife, plant life, and the advocacy for their access to natural cycles of darkness,” explained Dick.

Dick goes on to explain that the technical designation of dark-sky preserves, or DSPs, is based on two key factors: space and lighting. DSPs must be a great distance away from large centres of light, like cities or major highways, to avoid residual light pollution. Proper light is also key, which is why Dick not only wrote the RASC’s Guidelines for Low-Impact Lighting, but also single-handedly designed and built low-impact lights that meet those guidelines.

“I started getting calls from park managers telling me my lighting guidelines were impossible. There simply wasn’t lighting available that actually complied. Well, I’m an engineer. When you say something’s impossible to an engineer, that’s just like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Literally within a week, I built lights that worked.” It took Dick just over a year to perfect the design of his lights. Today, he supplies low-impact lights to parks across all of North America, including Grasslands National Park, distributing them through CSbG.

I learned that the effort to preserve darkness goes beyond the sky after speaking with former RASC Saskatoon President Richard Huziak, who was instrumental in leading Grasslands’ dark-sky preserve designation in 2009. “Black-footed ferrets, which are nocturnal and require pristine darkness in order to hunt, were reintroduced to the [Grasslands National Park] on the same day it became a dark-sky preserve. They also happen to be an endangered species. Without preservation of dark places, these animals likely wouldn’t survive,” explained Huziak.

“A respect for darkness is not just about stars—it’s about animals. It’s about flora and fauna health. It’s a human health issue. It’s an energy and environment issue. It’s a First Nations issue—we’ve lost our stories about the skies.”

Canadian Dark-Sky Preserves

A dark-sky preserve (DSP) is an area that restricts artificial light and where active measures are in place to educate and promote the reduction of light pollution to the public. This reduction is most commonly associated with the preservation of dark areas to support both professional and amateur astronomical observation, but the practice also takes into account certain animals and plant life that require areas of natural darkness to thrive. Canada is blessed with eighteen official dark-sky preserves, more than any other country. This is partly due to the country’s sheer land mass, second only to Russia. Canada has been a leader in the official designation of these dark-sky areas since 1999, when a region in Muskoka, Ontario called Torrance Barrens became the first permanent DSP in the world.