Astrophotography is a very rewarding hobby. Many really good images are being taken all around the world from less-than-ideal night skies, in or near major cities by taking advantage of today’s technology. But there really is no substitute for a pristine, dark night sky for getting the absolute best photos or for just taking in the grandeur of the night sky. A majority of the population of the United States and Europe, as well as other large cities around the world grow up without ever seeing the majesty of the Milky Way Galaxy in all its glory. The encroachment of urban development and the subsequent artificial lighting that goes along with it will only worsen in the coming decades.
Luckily there are movements around the globe to protect dark skies and those areas in which light pollution has only intruded to a small extent. Some localities have implemented their own artificial lighting ordinances, which restrict the amount and type of artificial lighting allowed. There is also a global movement called the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). By advocating and providing tools for local industries and individuals to sensibly manage lighting policies, the hope is to preserve as much of the remaining dark sky as long as possible for all to enjoy. Besides the preservation of the beauty of the night sky, the IDA also approaches responsible dark sky artificial lighting recommendations with consideration of energy wastage, human health, and crime.
The International Dark Sky Places Program (IDSP) encourages places around the world to preserve and protect dark sky sites. They also maintain an interactive map to help users find dark-sky sites near them. The organization has five categories of certification. From the darksky.org website:
- International Dark Sky Sanctuaries
Sanctuaries are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile.
- International Dark Sky Parks
Parks are publicly- or privately-owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. They have areas of at least 1,000 acres
- International Dark Sky Reserves
Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core. Dark sky reserves have at least 5000 acres.
- Urban Night Sky Places
Urban Night Sky Places are sites near or surrounded by large urban environs whose planning and design actively promote an authentic nighttime experience in the midst of significant artificial light at night.
- International Dark Sky Communities
Communities are legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies.
In the eastern continental United States and a good portion of Europe, it is difficult to find a truly dark night sky, although, between urban areas, light pollution does decrease sufficiently in spots to be able to see the Milky Way. At best, you can expect a Bortle class 5 or 6 sky. In the western United States, there are vast areas that approach Bortle class 2 (or even 1 in very remote spots). Here are just a few of the many spots in the USA, where really dark night skies are possible. As you can see, many are in the less densely populated western US.
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
- Death Valley National Park, California
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
- Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
- Joshua Tree National Park, California
- Roosevelt National Forest, North Dakota
- Zion National Park, Utah
- Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Idaho
- Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, Idaho
Here are some dark sky sites from around the world:
- Ciel d’Ardèche Dark Sky Park, France
- Gamsberg Nature Reserve, Namibia
- Hawkshead Dark Skies, Cumbria, UK
- Goat Island Conservancy, New Zealand
- Mordor Dark Sky Reserve, New South Wales, Australia
- Nant Gwynant Dark Sky Reserve, Snowdonia National Park, Wales
- Stelvio National Park, Italy
Luckily there are still places on the planet that are dark enough for us to enjoy truly dark skies, many of which are within driving distance of major urban areas. For those who are more adventurous, very large portions of South America, Africa, Asia, and interior Australia have pristine night skies, which would be considered Bortle 1 or 2 class. Many of us take city living for granted and don’t give a second thought to what the night sky looks like because mostly it just looks whitish with a few stars visible. But luckily there are still many places on Earth where a very dark night sky is possible. Let’ try to work together to preserve those places for as long as possible. I encourage everyone who appreciates nature to not overlook the issue of light pollution and to get involved in promoting reasonable lighting policies, wherever you live.