Protected regions with minimal light pollution reveal our shared cultural heritage: the starry skies
Most parks are closed at night. However, it is a different story for so-called ‘Dark Sky Parks’ or ‘Star Parks’ – they reveal their sights only after nightfall. The distinctiveness of these parks is that they are hardly affected by light pollution and thereby allow the clear viewing of a large number of stars.
Places with the most unobstructed night sky views are becoming increasingly rare due to steadily increasing light pollution. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) works to protect regions where light pollution remains minimal. Therefore, every unnecessary artificial light source pollutes the natural environment, which can have harmful consequences for humans and nature. Apart from the fact that we can no longer see the stars when there is too much light pollution, this phenomenon also affects wildlife, human health, and the climate. Many animals and plants are nocturnal and require a distinct alternation between light and dark conditions. Migratory birds, for example, usually fly at night and lose their orientation when exposed to too much light. The human hormonal system also reacts to artificial light at night. It has been scientifically proven that artificial light reduces the body’s production of melatonin. This results in sleep disorders, which in turn can affect mental balance. Last but not least, many nighttime light sources are a waste of electricity and energy resources, thus harming the climate.
By keeping the night as dark as possible, we humans benefit as well as our planet. Unfortunately, light pollution continues to spread rapidly. According to the IDA, it is increasing twice as fast as population growth, and 83 percent of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies. The International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) program was launched in 2001 to protect the regions where true darkness still exists.
One of Germany’s three dark sky parks is the Westhavelland Nature Park, located in Brandenburg, some 70 kilometers west of Berlin. In February 2014, it was designated the first star park in Germany. The thinly populated region around the Havel River is considered one of the darkest nighttime places in Germany and, according to the IDA, comparable to the Namib Desert in Namibia in terms of darkness. The non-profit organization Westhavelland Star Park encourages the moderate use of artificial light and provides information about the night sky, our common cultural heritage. After all, the observation of the stars is one of the oldest sciences in humankind’s long history.
Since March 2002, the German Federal Nature Conservation Act has been expanded to include measures to reduce light emissions. These measures include a sustainable retrofitting of street lighting and the inclusion of lighting rules in construction plans and urban land use plans. These initiatives have already borne fruit. According to the Westhavelland Star Park website, there has been a noticeable trend toward light reduction between 2013 and 2019, and since then, Berlin has become darker at night.
If you feel inclined to do some stargazing in a star park, this summer has a lot to offer in terms of brilliant star spectacles. From mid-July to mid-August, first the Aquariids and then the Perseids meteor showers will appear. The events calendar of the Westhavelland Star Park is packed. In addition to night hikes, night kayak tours are also on offer. The ‘moonlight paddling’ event is quickly booked up, so it’s advised to book well in adveance. But other nights offer a lot to discover, too. For instance, star parks let you see the Milky Way up in the sky with the naked eye. What’s more, stargazers can also observe the so-called ‘airglow,’ a faint glow from the upper layers of the atmosphere.
Of course, you can enjoy the breathtaking view of the starry night sky in many in other dark sky parks all over the world. The largest one to date, the new Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, just opened in April of 2022 in North America and encompasses more than 9 million acres in portions of western Texas and northern Mexico. The reserve’s core area is home to the McDonald Observatory, one of the premiere astronomical facilities in the world and home to the Hobby-Eberle Telescope, the fourth largest optical telescope in the world. During the observatory’s legendary star parties, visitors get to look through the high-performance telecscope at stars, planets and galaxies.
The world’s darkest (yet still accessible) dark sky park can be found Namibia. The NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of Africaʼs largest private nature reserves and was originally established to help protect and conserve the unique ecology and wildlife of the southwest Namib Desert. Overnight guests at the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET) Centre have the opportunity to sleep in “open air” units where they can view the night sky from the comfort of their beds.
Here is a map of star parks around the world.