Vast expanses of twinkling stars. Pristine views of the night sky. And no glare to blur the Milky Way.
These are the characteristics that define what are known as dark sky locations. As of this week, 187 such sites in 21 countries, including national parks, isolated sanctuaries and nature reserves, have been determined to meet the International Dark-Sky Association standard for designation: “A land with an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.
The group, based in Tucson, Arizona, grants the certifications as part of its mission to restore the night skies to their natural state. It has certified 30 new dark sky locations so far in 2021, with a few more planned before the end of the year, according to Ashley Wilson, the association’s director of conservation.
To help reduce light pollution – an overwhelming artificial light that obscures the view of stars and planets – the group suggests simple changes, such as tilting exterior lights down to limit disturbance to nocturnal wildlife.
“Each location of the dark sky acts as an important vehicle for conveying messages about the importance of dark skies and quality outdoor lighting to a wider audience, especially people who live in cities,” said Wilson. in an email.
All protected public lands as well as private lands that provide night access are eligible for certification.
Ms Wilson said the sites “must demonstrate that the Milky Way is easily visible to the naked eye” and that “no nearby artificial light source produces significant glare.”
Here are five sites that have recently received dark sky designations.
Mammoth Cave National Park
With nearly 53,000 acres, this southern Kentucky national park is known for its labyrinth of caves and lush forests. Last week it became an official Dark Sky Park.
“We hope this designation will encourage the public to appreciate not only the vastness of Mammoth Cave’s miles of deep underground passages, but also the beauty of the night sky above the park,” said Barclay C. Trimble, director of the Mammoth Cave. Park. in a report.
The certification involved an evaluation of more than 700 outdoor luminaires and the modernization of the luminaires to make them compatible with the starry sky. The park, the first site operated by the National Park Service to receive the designation, was also to show its commitment to promoting the benefits of dark skies to the public.
Watoga State Park
In October, Watoga State Park in West Virginia received its Dark Sky status with Calvin Price State Forest and Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.
The three zones, which collectively encompass 19,800 acres of public land in southern West Virginia, were the first places in the state to receive dark sky designations.
In 2018, the Watoga State Park Foundation began seeking certification. Two board members got a grant to replace the park’s light fixtures and worked with volunteer astronomers to measure the quality of the park’s night sky for a year.
John Goodwin, president of the foundation, said in a statement that “our many sentient animal species will live and thrive in their usual darkness, just like their ancestors, without artificial light pollution.”
In August, the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Texas was named a Dark Sky Sanctuary.
In the association’s nomenclature, a dark sky sanctuary is “usually located in a very remote location with little (if any) nearby threats to the quality of its dark night sky.” They are even further away – and usually darker – than parks or dark sky preserves.
Black Gap, which covers approximately 103,000 acres with little development, is in the rugged Trans-Pecos region of West Texas.
Black Gap is the second property managed by a state park to receive sanctuary status. (The Devils River State Natural Area was certified in 2019.) Additionally, Texas has four Dark Sky Parks.
AMC Maine Woods
In May, the Maine Woods property of the Appalachian Mountain Club became New England’s first dark sky park.
The area, which offers a clear view of the dark sky, is one of the darkest spots on the east coast, which has significant light pollution, experts say.
The Dark Sky Park sits at the edge of the woods of northern Maine, an area of 5,400 square miles of largely uninhabited forest stretching from Monson, Maine, Canada.
“We hope this designation will draw more attention to the value of this natural resource as well as its regional scarcity,” said Ruskin Hartley, Executive Director of the International Dark-Sky Association, upon designation.
Chiricahua National Monument
The nearly century-old national monument in southeastern Arizona was named a Dark Sky Park in April.
The association said the monument “protects some of the darkest night skies in the American Southwest.”
Known for its impending rock pinnacles or ‘standing rocks’, the park has been described as a heavenly island due to the secluded mountain range above the surrounding prairie sea.
The park’s “geographic isolation” from major metropolitan areas provides “excellent natural protection against light pollution and sky glow,” the Dark Sky Association said in April, describing the quality of the park’s night sky. as “almost virgin at the zenith”.