The Time Has Come: First Ever European Dark Sky Places Conference

Across the world the desire to see an unpolluted night sky is growing to the extent that we can now legitimately talk about a ‘dark sky movement’. The first ever European Dark Sky Places Conference will take place this September close to Galloway Forest Park, the first area in Europe to achieve dark sky park status. The conference offers a wide variety of stakeholders from the fields of astronomy, planning, lighting design, environmentalism, tourism and health and wellbeing an opportunity to discuss the benefits that dark sky status can bring. The adverse impacts of artificial light at night on the health and wellbeing of humans and wildlife and the consequent loss of our night sky heritage is becoming more widely accepted.

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) established in 1988 describes itself as, ‘the largest NGO fighting for the night!’ and its main focus is combating light pollution and educating the public and policymakers about night sky conservation. Its Dark Sky Places Program encourages communities around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting polices and public education; it recently designated Bodmin Moor in England as its 85th dark sky place. When I began my MA research into the role the night sky plays in the lives of the Dark Sky island community of Sark there was less than half that number. Places as diverse as Canada, Namibia, France and South Korea are recognising the importance of preserving unpolluted night skies for present and future generations.

Humans have always gazed up at the night sky and woven myth and meaning around what they observed. Viewing dark skies leads to feelings of awe and connectedness to others viewing the sky in other places, and to something bigger than ourselves. Unfortunately however, as light pollution continues to grow, it is getting more difficult to see a pristine sky. How many of us regularly see the Milky Way now? In Los Angeles in 1994 when an earthquake caused a massive power outage, worried residents rang the authorities about a huge, silvery cloud, not realising it was the Milky Way, which many had never seen before due to sky glow.

Light pollution is not the only obstacle to stargazing, our insatiable thirst for faster ways to communicate, find our way home and spy on our neighbours means a proliferation of satellites. In some areas we’re more likely to see communication satellites than comets, space junk than Saturn. Worryingly, there are currently no international regulations limiting space debris nor the most appropriate disposal methods. One of my interviewees on Sark recounted the story of a famous astronomer asking about a particular star that he did not recognise in the west, and she enjoyed telling him it was actually a plane bound for Guernsey.1 Increased air travel means there will be many more aircraft in the sky and aircraft lights also contribute to obscuring views of the night sky.

Although it seems humans have always travelled to watch celestial events – for example to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico which has a number of monumental buildings built by the Chacoan people that are aligned with solar and lunar cycles – as the number of recognised dark sky places grows so has the associated industry of astro-tourism. Bryce Canyon National Park in the Colorado Plateau offers around 100 astronomy programs a year, guest astronomers and an annual four day astronomy festival: in 2012, there were over 50,000 night-sky related visits contributing over $2 million to the local economy.2 At the other end of the scale, in Northumberland, England, guests at local hotels are now routinely provided with night-vision torches, and deckchairs are put out at night. Both places now recognise the economic benefits of labelling and marketing a phenomenon, which they had previously taken for granted.

Most people however live in urban areas, and viewing dark skies often means travelling to more remote, less accessible areas. For some this is simply not possible. One of the areas I have begun to turn my attention to is how to encourage dark sky preservation in urban areas. There is evidence showing how providing urban green spaces can help bring people together, create community cohesion and catalyse community activism.3 Perhaps this model can be extended to our urban skies.

Whilst hoping to see stars or planets from anywhere in the world is perhaps unrealistic, with a little effort even city dwellers can find spots in between buildings and trees. Consider the phenomenon of ‘Manhattanhenge’ – twice yearly in May and July the sunset perfectly aligns with the streets of New York (and a similar effect occurs in cities such as Toronto and Boston) and for a few brief moments thousands of people are captivated by the spectacle taking place in the night sky.

Photo credit: © 2013 Gaia Somasca

A little knowledge about phases of the moon also helps when choosing when to look up. The best moon phases for stargazing are the new moon and the third quarter phase when the moon is starting to wane. In cities I have taken to stargazing later at night or early morning when there is less light pollution, with my back away from the city.

Darkness however holds different associations for different people and it has been suggested that humans have a primeval fear of the dark.4 Recently local people near my home in Edinburgh took to social media to discuss the pros and cons of the council’s proposal for less bright streetlighting, highlighting that for some the possibility of darker skies brings anxiety about increased crime. Rebecca Steinbach et al. however suggested that as long as all risks were considered carefully, local authorities can reduce street lighting without there being a subsequent rise in road collisions or crime.5 It seems that there is still work to be done to allay the fears of those used to brightly lit streets.


Sark in the Dark: Wellbeing and Community on the Dark Sky Island of SarkI will be speaking about the role that the night sky plays in the lives of the Dark Sky island community of Sark at the European Dark Sky Places Conference which takes place from 20-22 September at Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, south west Scotland. Whilst my Sark research found many benefits associated with spending time under a dark sky, I am now narrowing my focus to the effects of one particular celestial body, the moon, on wellbeing and investigating the activity of ‘moonbathing’.


Featured image © Sue Daly

  1. See, Ada Blair, Sark in the Dark: Wellbeing and Community on the Dark Sky Island of Sark (Ceredigion, Wales: Sophia Centre Press, 2016), pp. 144–45.
  2. National Parks Conservation Association, Destination Darkness
  3. T.A. More, ‘The Parks are Being Loved to Death. And Other Frauds and Deceits in Recreation Management’, Journal of Leisure Research 34.1 (2002): pp. 52–78. C.L.E. Rohde and A.D. Kendle, Human Well-being, Natural Landscapes and Wildlife in Urban, Areas: A Review, English Nature Science Report No. 22 (Peterborough: English Nature, 1994).
  4. A. Roger Ekirch, ‘At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past’, p. 3.
  5. Rebecca Steinbach, Chloe Perkins, Lisa Tompson, Shane Johnson, Ben Armstrong, Judith Green, Chris Grundy, Paul Wilkinson and Phil Edwards, ‘The Effect of Reduced Street Lighting on Road Casualties and Crime in England and Wales: Controlled Interrupted Time Series Analysis’, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 69.11 (2015): 1118–24.