“The night sky is a centrepiece in our shared cultural history, regardless of where you live on the planet.” Alan Nursall
There’s plenty of reasons to preserve the dark skies that are rapidly being bullied away by light pollution around our world. Here, a group of experts (among them astronauts, scientists, science writers, dark sky photographers and more) tackle the question individually, and their nine unique answers are as thought-provoking as they are inspiring.
Dark sky preserves are special places. Under a canopy of millions of stars, a dark sky reveals our galaxy to us. The view appeals to our highest selves – our intellectual, emotional and spiritual selves. A sky full of stars fosters expansive thoughts about scientific discovery, deep space exploration and peaceful collaboration. It fosters feelings of optimism. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone in the world had the same opportunity?
Having dark skies is like having clean windows, or in the case of those who live in cities, having any windows at all – in order to see the REST of the universe we inhabit. When light pollution obscures my view of the cosmos, I feel as if I’m in an airplane with all the shades down. Sure, I’m still traveling, but I have no visual context for my trip.
A study earlier this year showed that spending as little as two hours a week in nature was beneficial for health and well-being. Upon hearing this most would assume that ‘nature’ means a walk in the woods, sitting by lake or hiking a ridge in the Rockies. But the sky – especially the night sky – is part of nature! And if nature is supposed to provide a setting for deep thought and reflection, then surely being able to look out into the vastness of the universe is the peak version of that experience. And a dark sky preserve is the best place for this experience.
In 2017, I took part in a high-altitude noctilucent cloud research campaign with Project PoSSUM, and on our first night of the campaign, we saw these ghostly clouds competing with these ethereal, shimmering Northern Lights, all in Northern Alberta in the summer, the land of perpetual twilight, even at 3am. It was incredible, and I assumed that this happened all the time. I later found out from our lead researcher that it was only the second time in 7 years that he had seen these phenomena occurring in tandem! We were privy to this grand cosmic display, despite the perpetual twilight, because we were away from city lights. It really underscored to me the beauty and grandeur and mystery that can be accessible to all of us, if we but tilt our heads upwards. There are many mysteries in the night sky that remained to be uncovered, and much of the night sky to explore – but we need to have a dark sky to be able to look towards, and we have a duty to preserve that mystery and wonder – for ourselves and for future generations.
I’ve been lucky to lead photography workshops in dark sky preserves around the globe. Every time we venture out to photograph the night sky, people are blown away to clearly see the milky way and a sky full of stars. It just isn’t possible from a major city, so preserving these environments is about both preventing further light pollution, and also showing people the awe-inspiring environment that unaffected nature offers.
The night sky has been profoundly influential in the development of human culture and science. Prior to electrification of our modern world, which was basically only about 100 years ago, the night sky had a central role in people’s lives. It was TV when the sun went down. There was nothing else to see, so it played a huge role. It was a source of vital information – it marked the seasons, it marked the directions, it spoke to cultures about the past, present, and future. It was a source of both wonder and wisdom. For so many of us, that connection to the night sky is almost completely gone. We can no longer appreciate its cultural and scientific role, since we can’t really see it, and we don’t really need it. Connecting to the night sky is connecting to thousands of years of civilization. The night sky is a centrepiece in our shared cultural history, regardless of where you live on the planet.
We go to parks to experience the natural environment. A dark sky preserve shows us the full environmental context, the fact that the Earth is a relatively small ball floating in an unimaginably huge universe along with a family of other planets among a myriad of stars. It is only when we get away from the lights of our urban life that we can appreciate the cosmos above our heads.
We should actively preserve our dark skies for the same reasons we preserve forests, waterways and natural landmarks – so that our grandchildren’s grandchildren can enjoy them. They are a part of the history of our planet, and we owe this preservation to our descendants.
In anything we do, whether it be research, work or leisure, context is everything. Understanding how our actions and existence relates to other people, places and things is critical to our success and well-being. Dark skies provide the window into our context in the Universe.