An international movement working to preserve our dark night skies has released an interactive map of sites that everyone can visit. The International Dark-Sky Association's accredited "Dark Sky Places" provide visitors with the sparkling views of the night sky that our recent ancestors enjoyed as a matter of course. The parks are about more than just providing a place for astronomers and the public to look at the stars. They're also there to raise awareness of the problems that light pollution poses for the environment and even to human health.
Artificial light is a relatively new phenomenon from an historical perspective. Before electricity was widely taken up from the turn of the 20th century, the moon, stars, galaxies and constellations played a role in the cultural heritage of almost every society. Creation myths often featured the stars and planets as people tried to rationalize what they were seeing. Religious celebrations often relied on the placement in the sky of stars and constellations, because people believed that the skies were relaying messages from the gods.
The night sky also played a crucial role in navigation. People used the stars, planets and the Moon to find their way through deserts, and sailors used them to navigate the globe. The constellations are part of the reason human beings succeeded in forming agricultural societies, because they enabled farmers to predict when winter, spring and summer were coming.
Most of what we currently know about astronomy and our place in the Universe came about through the observation of the night sky from Earth.
Losing the night sky to artificial light robs us of the ability to continue to grow and evolve our knowledge through observation. And according to the International Dark-sky Association's communications and public affairs director, Cheryl Ann Bishop, the world's increasing levels of light pollution pose a broader threat than was once believed.
"Originally, the main concern for IDA was mitigating light pollution to benefit astronomers and stargazers," Bishop told Gizmag. "Since then, the IDA's mission has greatly expanded to include the protection of wildlife, ecosystems, and human health and safety from the harmful effects of artificial light at night."
According to the IDA, the Earth's cycle of light and dark is encoded into the DNA of every plant and animal. Dark skies play a role in the natural hunting, feeding and sleep cycles of animals and in the life cycle of many plant species. Artificial light robs nocturnal prey species of their time to feed under cover, and draws insects to lights, destroying populations and adversely affecting the food chain. Artificial light also disrupts the migratory patters of bird species and draws vulnerable turtle hatchlings away from the relative safety of the ocean.
Darkness also seems to play a role in human health. Bishop says this issue is of particular concern now that so many cities are replacing their lighting with more energy-efficient LEDs. LED lighting is far brighter than incandescent and fluorescent light, and the light is on the blue end of the color temperature scale, similar to sunlight.
"Numerous studies have linked artificial light at night – particularly blue-rich white light – to human health issues, such as breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, and more," says Bishop. "Although these studies are about exposure while indoors and there is very little research about outdoor exposure, the fact still remains that exposure is exposure."
The good news is that the problems posed by LED light pollution is solvable without losing the benefits. It's a matter of choosing warm light or filtered LED's and avoiding over-lighting.
To this end, the IDA is working with lighting manufacturers to certify and promote lighting options that are "dark sky friendly." IDA also helps educate city planners and government officials about the importance of regulating outdoor lighting.
"The IDA's vision is to help governments and the public regard light pollution the same way as water or air pollution, and then work to resolve it with the same amount of resources as they use to mitigate other types of pollution," says Bishop. "In many ways, we're still at the public awareness phase. We've made a lot of progress, but we need to make much more."
Currently, the IDA is working with lighting manufacturers to purchase bulk eco-friendly lighting for environmentally sensitive areas, with the savings then passed on to the parks that use them.
"We believe that this program has helped educate and move the industry forward," says Bishop. "When the program began, there wasn't much of a market for dark sky friendly lighting, and now there is."
In recent years, the group's flagship project, the International Dark-Sky Places program, seems to be gaining momentum. "In 2014, we designated 13 dark sky places," says Bishop. "This year, we will conclude the year with at least 16."
To be designated as an International Dark Sky Place, parks and reserves need to implement public programming about light pollution and the importance of dark skies.
If you're interested in visiting dark sky friendly place, you can find a map here.