Though modern science has increased our understanding of what we see in the night sky, a quick glance at the stars on a clear night is just as magnificently mysterious as it was long ago. Unfortunately, our ability to view that night sky has diminished with the increasing presence of artificial light.
In order to save an unimpeded view of the cosmos for future generations, a few dedicated organizations, such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), have begun to designate areas of land as certified dark-sky preserves. “Our program not only protects areas that enjoy natural dark skies, but also helps spread the word about the values behind such protections,” says Scott Kardel, public affairs director with the IDA. “We also raise awareness of the effects of light pollution, and how curbing it promotes energy conservation and reduces the impact on wildlife.”
Last year, Jasper National Park, in Alberta, Canada, became the largest dark-sky preserve in the world when it earned the distinction from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). In addition to taking steps to curb light emissions, the park management made its sky more accessible by adding observation towers, designated viewing areas and an annual Dark Sky Festival.
Jeremy Derksen, media and public relations specialist with Tourism Jasper, is optimistic about the park’s new designation and push to attract groups. “The fact that 97% of the park is and will remain undeveloped, and by extension free of light pollution, speaks to the conservation ethic and the experience here.”
In addition to Jasper, other preserves are popping up around the globe. The IDA alone has designated 10 dark-sky parks, and the organization is working with groups such as the RASC and the UNESCO-affiliated Starlight Foundation to add even more. According to Kardel, the popularity of such sites is increasing as word spreads. “There has been tremendous interest in the UK regarding Exmoor National Park, while in the U.S., the Headlands in Michigan and Great Bend National Park in Kansas have been the top draw.”
Meeting in a dark-sky preserve allows attendees to retreat from city life and find inspiration in nature. “Living in Edmonton, I had forgotten what the night sky really looked like. When I moved to Jasper, I started looking more and more at the night sky and was astounded by what I saw,” says Derksen. “Now I often stop what I’m doing, look up for a minute or two, and just appreciate the sense of peace and awe it conveys.”