It’s really dark in the Dark Reserve, and you won’t believe what you see
Due to increased “light pollution” in Western Europe, many stars have become invisible at night. In a reserve of darkness, you only notice what you miss as a result.
The sun disappeared behind the mountains around Lake Tekapo in New Zealand an hour ago. A large group of tourists board a van en route to the Mount John Observatory on the hill of the same name. You immediately notice how dark it is here, with no street lights or oncoming traffic.
In the van, the driver asks not to use cell phones anymore. The human eye takes more than 20 minutes to get used to total darkness. A glance at a bright screen or in a headlight brings your eyes back to their daytime position. Only red light, the color with the lowest energy intensity, is still allowed. The van’s headlights go out long before the tourists get to the top of the hill. The darkness outside is disturbed only by faint streaks of blue light from a few glowworms.
At the observatory, there is a 360 degree panorama of Lake Tekapo and its surroundings. And of course on the starry sky. The conditions are ideal for this. It is cold, clear and the humidity is low. The band of the Milky Way extends in a wide arc above our heads. From the southern hemisphere, the group looks into its own Milky Way, towards the galactic center. As a result, everything is visible that can never be seen in the north.
The cluster is remarkably bright and full of stars. The dark spots you can make out there are clouds of dust and gas. You can see constellations there, as well as the Southern Cross and the star Alpha Centauri, which is the nearest neighbor of our sun at “only” four light years. The two Magellanic Clouds are also special. They are mini-galaxies just outside our Milky Way. They literally look like little clouds among the many stars.
Tekapo is located in the middle of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Preserve. It is an area of 4300 square kilometers in the heart of the Southern Alps, the mountain range that crosses the South Island of New Zealand. It is rough and sparsely populated. “To call us a Dark Sky Preserve, we had to show a database that includes all streetlights and other outdoor lighting,” says one of the observatory’s guides.
“And we had to convey convincingly that the local population was involved and would make an effort not to produce unnecessary light. It was a success, there is now a lot of involvement with the local population. We regularly go to schools in the area, including outside the reserve, to talk to children about it, so that they learn it from an early age.
Blue and white light is not allowed
Public awareness and involvement is of the utmost importance, as living in a Dark Sky Sanctuary obviously means there are limitations in terms of lighting. For example, outdoor lighting is in principle only permitted if strictly necessary, for example for safety reasons or at traffic signs. Exterior lights should be directed downwards and fitted with motion sensors or timers to avoid unnecessary light use. Blue and white light is out of the question, as are illuminated billboards for example.
The result of all these efforts is a vast area where darkness reigns every night. But real darkness. And this in a country that already had the darkest nights and therefore the most impressive starry sky in the world. New Zealanders are proud of it. “We are even now trying to become a dark sky nation with the whole country, there is only one in the world: the island nation of Niue in the Pacific Ocean. Maori culture shows us the way. They know better than anyone the importance of the dark night for people, nature and culture.
The sight of the starry night sky has always evoked feelings of awe and wonder. Many ancient cultures have had their creation myths and ancestors reflected in them. The appearance of the sky also changes throughout the year. This made the starry sky a reliable landmark for tracking the seasons.
For Maori, for example, the appearance of Matariki – the striking star cluster we know as the Pleiades – in late June or early July meant the start of the new year and the lengthening of the days. The moon told them when it was time to sow, reap, or sail the sea. But the stars were also indispensable to early Western explorers in determining their location on the open sea. In this way, the man who gazes at the stars largely shaped its own history.
More and more light pollution
Thanks to our 24-hour economy, it is no longer really dark at night in the Netherlands, and certainly in the agglomeration of Randstad. In many office buildings, fluorescent lighting is left on. Highways are bathed in light all night long, even when there are hardly any cars on them. In satellite photos, the Netherlands, along with much of northwestern Europe, is clearly visible as a bright spot. In the world, most people live in places polluted by light. And the amount of artificial light is only increasing, on average by 2% per year.
Increased light pollution causes us to lose the primordial experience of a dark night sky. It’s a big loss. But perhaps even more serious is that the constant presence of artificial light is bad for our mental and physical well-being. The biological clock is set to follow the day and night rhythm of nature. Morning light activates the system, while decreasing light in the evening actually stimulates the production of melatonin, which makes people sleepy.
The constant availability of light is of course very useful. It also gives a sense of security. But the other side of the coin is that we turn night into day. In a 2013 study on light pollution, the RIVM concluded that hundreds of thousands of people in the Netherlands experience light pollution or even sleep disturbances due to excessive artificial light in the evening and at night.
Migratory birds are exhausted
Animals also suffer from dependence on artificial light. Research has already shown that songbirds living in areas with high levels of artificial light sleep less and start singing earlier in the morning. This reduced night’s sleep has a negative impact on their health. There are known examples of migratory birds getting lost above the sea or circling around a lighted drilling rig, sometimes until they drop exhausted. We don’t yet know everything about the effects of light pollution on the behavior of birds and other animals. However, good comparative research is difficult, because there is hardly any area in the Netherlands without light pollution.
Another example is the swarms of insects around a bright lamp. Recent research (published on bioRxiv, the preprint server for biological research) has shown that these insects are not attracted to light itself, as is often thought, but that light disturbs their orientation. Insects determine what is above and below based on light intensity, the researchers write. “Above” is always where there is the most light: by the sun during the day, the stars at night. The insects turn their backs to the light and that is how they continue to fly upright. Bright artificial light disrupts this mechanism, the researchers say. This causes insects to flit uncontrollably around a lamp.
Warm red light is much better
Overall, light pollution is a real problem. But it could easily be otherwise, according to the International Dark Sky Association, the international club behind Tekapo and many other dark places around the world. Turn off unnecessary lighting at night more often or dim it. Provide outdoor lighting adjusted downwards, do not make artificial light more intense than necessary and above all limit blue light, whose energy intensity is the highest. Warm red light is much better. The development of LED light is promising according to the organization. An LED lamp is dimmable, economical and easily adjustable in terms of direction, color and intensity.
Once back at the RV, the tour group late gazes at the stars. The sky here is as impressive as at the observatory. It is perhaps even more beautiful here, because the high expectations of tourist travel have disappeared. Here, people “simply” look up and experience their own cosmic surroundings in a way that has long since ceased to be possible in the Netherlands: silently, submerged and pensive in their place in the vast universe.
A sanctuary for the stars
The International Dark Sky Association was founded to draw attention to the increase in light pollution and to protect and preserve the dark night for the future. It does this, among other things, by creating safe areas for darkness, more or less in the same way that organizations also try to protect endangered species. In addition to dark sky reserves, there are two other categories. Dark sky sanctuaries and dark sky parks. Shrines are large, often remote areas where, unlike reserves such as Aoraki Mackenzie, public access is not a requirement. And there are the Dark Sky parks. The requirements for this title are slightly lower than those for reservations, but it’s dark enough to see the starry sky well. There are two recognized dark sky parks in the Netherlands: De Boschplaat in Terschelling and the Lauwersmeer in North Groningen.
The Dutch night is already a little darker, but there is still a lot of light pollution
The fifteenth “Night of the night” draws attention to the light nuisances of this weekend. It is not only harmful to nature, but also to humans.
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