Those who live in urban areas inhabit a radically different night-time reality than those living far from city lights. Gaze up at the night sky from a metropolis like New York City and you’re greeted with a dusty glow punctured by a few bright pin-prick stars. Do the same from a spot only 100 miles away and the Milky Way is visible as a thick ribbon stretching across a night sky swimming in stars.
Humanity has been steadily polluting the night skies since the advent of electric lights in the late 19th century, but where America’s last truly dark night skies still flourish—mostly in rural, western towns—communities are fighting to keep it that way. They’re enacting policies that protect their night skies from the bleeding glow of artificial lights, while at the same time protecting the plants and animals that rely on darkness. Astro-tourism is helping these communities by attracting dark sky enthusiasts from across the country. After decades of being carelessly wiped out, darkness is becoming a precious natural resource.
Today, it’s estimated that more than 99 percent of the U.S. and European populations live under artificially bright night skies. While there’s still no universally accepted definition for light pollution, John Barentine, director of public policy at the International Dark Association (IDA), calls it the “unintended, usually negative, consequence of the use of artificial light at night.” Stray light that’s reflected off the ground or sent directly upwards from fixtures that aren’t properly shielded brightens the night sky, obscuring our view of the stars.
The IDA, an organization that grants distinctions to communities that adhere to guidelines that preserve the night sky, got its start in the 1980s after two astronomers grew concerned about how artificial light was encroaching on their stellar views. The movement has been growing ever since. In 2001, Flagstaff, Arizona—which pioneered the world’s first lighting ordinance to preserve dark skies in the 1950s—became the first International Dark Sky Community.
Now, the IDA leads dark sky advocacy efforts worldwide, advising communities on the policies needed to acquire a dark sky distinction. There are now over 100 communities, parks, reserves, and sanctuaries around the world that have met IDA’s rigorous standards for an official Dark Sky Place—a location with formal protections to preserve, or improve, its nightscape.
Dark sky communities—one of only two IDA distinctions that focus on places people actually live—are cities and towns that adopt responsible lighting policies to keep light pollution to a minimum. Citizens from the growing suburbs to the most remote towns are waging battles in the name of darkness in town halls and online, urging local governments to make better lighting choices in order to protect their skies from becoming tainted by nearby sources of light pollution.
Barentine, who acts as the IDA’s main liaison to communities seeking a dark sky distinction, says there’s been a definite uptick in inquiries about IDA’s Dark Sky Place program in recent years. But major hurdles remain for many communities looking to attain a dark sky designation, evidenced by the fact that there are only about twenty Dark Sky Communities around the world. Fifteen of them are in the United States.
“People look at the requirements for the program and they see that it’s going to be a lot of work,” Barentine told me. “This is really about changing hearts and minds.”
“This is really about changing hearts and minds.”
IDA’s extensive application requires that would-be dark sky communities implement a comprehensive lighting policy, showcase their dedication to preserve dark skies by educating the populace, and demonstrate success in limiting light pollution by effectively implementing the local lighting code. This often requires the installation of shielded dark sky-friendly fixtures with a warmer color temperature, which prevent light from seeping into the sky. The process can often take years.
The places that have been designated, especially in recent years, have tended to be small rural communities in the West with populations on the order of hundreds to a few thousand, according to Barentine. One of the obvious challenges for dark sky advocates is how to get people to care about something they don’t know is missing.