IT used to be one of the life’s simple, taken-for-granted pleasures to stand outside in the blackness of night and just gaze at the star-speckled heavens.
But, for many people this experience is no longer possible, though we had a brief glimpse of what things used to be like during Earth Hour, the other Saturday night, when some cities, towns and even households around the globe turned off their lights for an hour.
The gesture could have saved about 15% of energy normally used on a Saturday night, according to estimates. Excess lighting is believed to be responsible for approximately two million barrels of oil per day.
It also has damaging effects on wildlife, especially on creatures that come out at night, such as bats, owls and numerous moths and insects.
Dark skies have become rare because of an international craze for more and more light, much it pointing upwards and causing a deal of light pollution.
Even in the heart of rural Ireland, it’s difficult to get a truly, dark sky — the price paid for better-lit streets, roads and buildings.
Many rural sports clubs now have powerful floodlights throwing out huge beams, while business premises, hotels, nightclubs, shopping complexes and even lavish private houses appear incomplete without some form of external lighting.
Since the beginning of recorded time, people have glanced upwards and marvelled at the wonders of the cosmos. But as they moved into cities, their links with the great world out yonder became more distant and an almost spiritual connection with the universe was lost.
Now, there are efforts to reconnect people with nature through dark sky parks. A fifth of the world’s population, two-thirds of America’s population and half of the people of the EU are unable to see the stars in the Milky Way galaxy, according to the International Year of Astronomy Dark Skies Awareness Campaign.
And with half the world’s population now living in cities, that situation is getting worse. People living along the west coast of Ireland, where some of the darkest skies in Europe can still be seen, are more fortunate. What about stargazing on the Blaskets or in Belmullet as a visitor attraction? But it’s a different story in, say, Cork city, where the night glow can be seen from places many kilometres distant.
The night sky is even less visible on the east coast. Dublin alone has around 50,000 lights and you can imagine the effects of that. Experts tells us about 30% of the light is heading skywards, adding to the night glow.
Walk out on the street of a city at night and 50 to 100 stars might be visible, but in quiet area well away from large urban centres, you’d see so many stars that it would be impossible to count.
Some eastern European countries are showing the way. The Republic of Slovenia, for example, has introduced a light pollution law, the expected benefits of which include energy savings of up to €10 million a year and a corresponding reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
In Britain, they are trying to earmark areas where dark skies can still be seen clearly. It is planned to make Galloway Forest Park, in southern Scotland, Europe’s first official dark sky park.
The selected area of ground, in Galloway, is surrounded by more than 400 square km of moorland, woods and lochs that form a rugged wilderness. It is said the area is so remote that, on a cloudless night, it offers extra-special views of the heavens and a chance to see shooting stars.
Only two other forest parks in the world, both in the US, have been so recognised, one in Pennsylvania and the other in Utah.
In order to qualify for dark sky park status, readings must be provided from light metres in different sections of a park and measures must also be taken to prevent lights from pointing upwards and ruining the sky views.
The proposal to register Galloway Forest Park is one of Britain’s highlights of UNESCO’s International Year of Astronomy, this year. If successful, other applications will follow.
Marek Kukula, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory in Grenwich, believes dark sky parks are needed to halt the growing interference with the natural beauty of the night sky.
“If we concreted over the countryside and bulldozed the forests, there would be an outcry, but this has sneaked up on us and people don’t realise what we are doing. The night sky is an amazing spectacle that 90% of the population doesn’t get to see,” he said.
Next year, British astronomers hope to set up partnerships with local parks to raise awareness of stargazing for those without easy access to the more remote areas of the countryside.
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