Preserving the night sky (Page 1 of 3)
With light pollution from cities threatening our view of the Milky Way, Jasper National Park is helping lead the way in preserving darkness.
By Peter McMahon with photography by Yuichi Takasaka
|Jasper National Park has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. When darkness descends, it gets even better. (Photo: Yuichi Takasaka)
March 2010. The road to Pyramid Lake winds through
a cathedral of trembling aspen, spruce and lodgepole pine
that thickens steadily as I cruise toward my own private
stargazing island. Thousands of distant rhinestones twinkle
in the winter blackness above my sunroof, and the branches
whizzing past overhead create the illusion that my car is
gliding through space itself.
|Find the best stargazing spots in Jasper (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic) |
The parking lot beside the bridge to Pyramid Island, a popular picnic spot in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, is
deserted. The skaters who cleared a patch of ice on the frozen lake have long since headed indoors. Not knowing
how much farther the snow has been cleared, with nearby resorts closed for the season, I leave my telescope in the car
and walk down the path with a pair of image-stabilized binoculars.
Reaching the island’s lone clearing, I stop and close my eyes for five minutes. When I look up, it feels as if I’ve just
had laser eye surgery. The Milky Way sparkles like a snowcapped mountain range lit by the sun, stretching from the
south to terrestrial Pyramid Mountain to the north. The bright stars of the constellations Gemini and Orion fade into
the infinite fields of distant suns. Astronomical objects I thought to be invisible without binoculars stand out clearly
to the naked eye: the wispy North America Nebula rises above Indian Ridge, and seven additional sister stars join the
Seven Sisters (a.k.a the Pleiades) over The Whistlers, an iconic mountain near the Jasper townsite. The view is even
more rewarding with my binoculars, but forgetting them would have made this night no less magical.
Stargazing apps for your smartphone
Standing on the edge of the lakeshore, I think back to a conversation I had earlier in the day with Gloria Keyes-Brady, Jasper National Park’s interpretation coordinator. We met for a pint at the Whistle Stop Pub, across the street from the cobblestone-and-timber information centre, less than
seven kilometres down the road from Pyramid Lake. I was talking about my passion for dark-sky preserves — essentially, stargazing parks where lighting ordinances defend the night from artificial sky glow — when she travelled through time to her childhood.
“Dark skies still give me goosebumps,” said Keyes-Brady, comparing the sky above Jasper to her first experiences under the stars at her family farm near Edson, Alta. “It feels as if the stars are single-handedly lighting up the Earth.” Keyes-Brady was so captivated by the stars of her youth, she wanted to hoard them all for herself. “But something like this is meant to be given away,” she said. “Sharing our night sky
is one of the untapped wonders the Rockies can offer.”
Jasper is celebrated for its daytime views of ancient glaciers, glassy lakes and majestic mountains, but the unspoiled sky over these landforms also makes the park an eat-over-the-sink-good feast for your eyes at night. One can see dreamy nightscapes of planets and constellations drifting overhead
year-round, but the brightest stars are visible in winter. I visited Jasper twice last year to help Parks Canada staff build a public astronomy program and assist with the area’s bid for official dark-sky preserve status. Over the past few years, a confluence of new ideas (such as interactive amphitheatre presentations and space-themed wilderness outings) and new technology (GPS star finders for your campsite, apps for your iPhone and iPad) has fuelled an explosion of these designated stargazing parks and, with it, a new kind of ecotourism you could call “wilderness astronomy.”
While there’s some confusion between the terms dark-sky preserve, reserve and park and some overlap between domestic and international designating bodies, Canada has, by any measure, more protected stargazing sites than every other country in the world combined. In 2009, four new parks joined eight existing locations, and efforts were underway to add Jasper and several more sites to the list. Driving back to town from Pyramid Lake on this crisp, moonless night, I can’t help fantasizing about eco-vigilantes taking out the last of the town’s offending street lamps with a few well-placed BBs.
Torrance Barrens, a two-hour drive north of Toronto in Ontario’s Muskoka cottage country, became
Canada’s first designated dark-sky reserve in 1999, joining a movement that started at Michigan’s Lake
Hudson Recreation Area in 1993. Other Canadian locations followed, including more than 550,000 hectares of parkland
surrounding Quebec’s Mont-Mégantic Observatory and Cypress Hills
Interprovincial Park on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. In the United States, the iconic arches
of southern Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument have dark-sky status, as do sites in Hungary, Scotland and elsewhere,
and Chile is quickly gaining attention for its dark skies.
|Dark-sky preserves across Canada (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic) |
The original intent of these preserves was to protect wild spaces from the encroaching light pollution of urban centres.
Remove the outdated “cobra-head” sodium vapour lights that are still the standard on most North American city
streets, dark-sky advocates urged, and install “full-cut-off ” fixtures with bulbs and shields that direct light downward,
not up and sideways, thus preventing stray light from being squandered into the sky.
This transition will keep the skies as dark as possible, allowing astronomy clubs and a much broader “polarfleece”
audience to enjoy faint galaxies and clouds of nebular gas. Such initiatives also help the bottom line —
adopting new lighting is often cheaper than continuing to use older technology — and nocturnal animals. According
to an emerging area of science known as scotobiology (the study of biology as affected by darkness), artificial light is
often the enemy of indigenous wildlife, distracting insects from pollinating and making small foraging animals more
visible to predators at night.
“People mistakenly think of all light as benign,” says Robert Dick, a former University of Ottawa and Carleton
University astronomy professor who manages the Light Pollution Abatement Program for The Royal Astronomical
Society of Canada (RASC), “but research over the past quarter-century has shown that it changes the natural environment and, in doing so, affects the ecological balance. Birds that are drawn to the lights of cities and get trapped
in the catacombs of glass towers can collide with the walls, falling stunned or dead to the base of the buildings. The unshielded light outside your window
isn’t just illuminating the street — it’s also affecting the health of every animal on the block.”
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