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Opinion | Preserving the dark sky

The International Dark Sky Association hopes to restore the sanctity of the night sky by reducing inappropriate use of artificial light

The best conditions for sky-viewing are clear, moonless nights. albie venter
The best conditions for sky-viewing are clear, moonless nights. albie venter

Just over a hundred years ago, people began enjoying streets and homes lit up with electricity. It has given us untold joy, a sense of security and so many more productive hours. But we have already reached a point where the overuse of light is having a negative effect on our planet, our wildlife and us.

We have known our spirits to soar when we look at a star-spangled sky. The beauty of the tinkling vault captivates us all, it’s the closest we come to perceiving the expanse of the universe, its boundless planets and galaxies. Why then, have we allowed an umbrella of light that hovers above our cities to come between us and our night sky?

Awareness is the first step to change. The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) was started by two astronomers in 1988, with the hope of preserving the night sky by reducing inappropriate use of artificial light. It designates dark sky status to preserves, parks and sanctuaries all over the world. Currently, 115 locations have won the coveted accolade, and people have been clamouring to explore them for the romance of the enhanced night views, the powerful observatories set up in many of them, and to capture truly ethereal shots of star clusters, meteor showers, zodiacal lights, Magellanic clouds and the aurora borealis on camera. Some of the best-preserved night skies can be experienced in the Atacama Desert in Chile, Aoraki Mackenzie Reserve in New Zealand and Kielder Forest in Northumberland, UK. The first nation to have dark sky status is Niue (New-ay), a 100 sq. miles coral isle in the Pacific Ocean.

Many other deserving areas across the globe could well belong on IDA’s list (you can see it at, such as the cold, dry deserts in Ladakh in the lee of the Himalayaas well as many national parks and sanctuaries that are naturally dark at night.

The best conditions for sky-viewing are clear, moonless nights. Walk over to hilltops, stand by lakesides, find open meadows or climb to the roof terraces of your homes. Having read Tiffany Francis’ book Dark Skies, I realized I was missing out on an entire aspect of nature and became obsessed with exploring nocturnal sights, sounds and scents. I was reminded of the vast emptiness of the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, when a million stars became amplified at nightfall and I saw the Milky Way directly overhead. My nightly walks, wherever I may be, have taken on religious significance and the glittering firmament has become my new favourite sighting, enhanced by the (free) GPS-enabled phone app SkyView Lite, where the major stars, constellations and planets leap into focus. NightCap, another app ($2.99, or around 225) has enabled me to take photographs of the skies with my phone with automatic long exposures.

Dark skies are vital for sea turtle hatchlings that use celestial navigation to get to the water. Confused by man-made night lights, each year millions of them start heading inland and die from dehydration, predation and the crunch of wheels.

Fireflies make their own light to communicate, hence they need the dark. They are dwindling at an alarming rate. Precious pollinator moths are derailed and confounded.

Migrating birds too navigate by the stars and the moon and they are constantly disoriented by the innumerable lights on the ground. In 1954, 50,000 birds tragically crashed and died at Warner Robin’s air force base in Georgia, US.

Astronomers lament that “skyglow", the light haze that floats above our over-lit cities at night, keeps them from looking into the distance. It hinders research.

Most urban humans suffer from too much light. Road accidents take place when temporarily blinded by headlights. Our natural circadian rhythms are upset. Our bodies need the dark to produce melatonin, which inhibits disease. Recent studies reveal that a rise in depression, sleeplessness, diabetes and a variety of cancers is linked to simply not getting enough dark.

I learnt that a single 100-watt bulb, if left on each night for a year, uses the equivalent energy of half a tonne of coal. Notice all those unnecessary lights? Entire buildings, even non-residential ones, lit up all night long? Why are we literally burning up our planet’s fossil fuel without a thought for future generations?

Each one of us can make a difference by turning off all unnecessary lights—it will help save on bills and fuel and keep spaces cooler in warm weather. Lean on your city planners to revisit the lighting plan and have downlit shades on streetlamps and bulbs with warmer colours. At home, use light sensors wherever possible. A tryst with a shooting star awaits you and dialling down the light will speed up your adventure.

Geetika Jain writes about cultures and experiences from around the world.

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