Thomas Edison could never have predicted how the light bulb would ultimately destroy posterity's ability to fully experience the night sky. Fortunately, there are still a few places on Earth where it's possible to escape light pollution - and Canyonlands National Park in Utah is one of the best of the best. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) recently granted Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park status to the Park, a designation reserved for parks with the darkest of dark skies. And it is breathtaking. On a recent visit to Utah, we came to understand how important it is for people to experience darkness, not only in terms of being able to enjoy the magnanimous night sky for its own sake, but also to experience optimal health.
“It is truly a pleasure to recognize efforts at Canyonlands to expand the reach of dark skies protections across the Colorado Plateau,” IDA Executive Director J. Scott Feierabend said in a recent press release. “The park’s achievement helps bring the awe-inspiring experience of an authentically dark, natural night to over half a million visitors a year.”
National Park Service officials made a concerted effort to preserve create the darkest possible environment for visitors. In addition to other measures, they replaced nearly 100 percent of the park’s lighting fixtures with “night-sky friendly” alternatives. And the result has definitely been effective.
“The Milky Way stretching across the park’s incredibly dark night sky is a sight many visitors will never forget,” said Canyonlands Superintendent Kate Cannon.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050, that number is expected to reach 66 percent, according to the United Nations. There are all kinds of challenges associated with these numbers, but the impact of too-much light could use more attention.
Human beings have evolved a circadian rhythm that is governed by the cycle of day and night. Since the industrial revolution, light pollution has disrupted those rhythms to disastrous effect.
“Our bodies produce the hormone melatonin in response to circadian rhythm,” IDA explains. “Melatonin helps keep us healthy. It has antioxidant properties, induces sleep, boosts the immune system, lowers cholesterol, and helps the functioning of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, testes and adrenal glands. Nighttime exposure to artificial light suppresses melatonin production.”
Exposure to artificial light at night is not only harmful for humans. Plants and animals are affected as well. Research scientist Christopher Kyba told IDA, “the introduction of artificial light probably represents the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment.”
“Predators use light to hunt, and prey species use darkness as cover,” Kyba said. “Near cities, cloudy skies are now hundreds, or even thousands of times brighter than they were 200 years ago. We are only beginning to learn what a drastic effect this has had on nocturnal ecology.”
IDA is working hard to empower communities, parks, developers and others to preserve the night sky for future generations. There are five different designations – including Dark Sky Parks, communities, reserves, developments and sanctuaries. If you’re craving total darkness and an explosion of stars, like I was, this handy map will help you find a Dark Sky Place near you.
Lead image via Shutterstock; all others by Tafline Laylin for Inhabitat