Above us only Sky - Terra Firma

Oct 1, 2016

Throughout civilisation, the stars have inspired artists, scientists, explorers, writers and musicians the world over. Those of us who walk the hills at night already appreciate the beauty of a naturally starry sky. How many times has your night navigation session been interrupted by the sight of Orion, the hunter, on a crisp winter’s evening, or The Milky Way shimmering over summer nights? Perhaps you were lucky enough to catch a display of the Perseid Meteor shower this August?

We often take these sights for granted yet without taking action, there is a real risk of losing our view of the stars across many of Ireland’s towns and cities.

Artificial lighting undoubtedly has its place in our world and is invaluable to our businesses, homes, roads and recreation. However, when used inappropriately or excessively, artificial lighting causes light pollution. We have all experienced it – think of a time when a head torch has blinded your night vision. Pointing the light down or when possible, using natural moonlight instead often provides an improved view. Yet the impact of light pollution extends beyond our concerns for observing the night; apart from the obvious cost of this wasted energy, it affects wildlife by interrupting the ecological food chain and confuses the migratory patterns for many birds using the stars to navigate. Our circadian clocks have evolved on a natural day/night pattern for thousands of years, and research is only on the cusp of exploring the impact of excessive artificial lighting on our health.

Fortunately, the light pollution is one of the easiest pollutants to tackle. This is one of the reasons Dark Sky Parks and Reserves are making recent news. The International Dark Sky Association, based in the USA, is a non-profit organisation working to preserve and protect dark skies since 1988. Their dark sky certification is a rigorous processmodeled on conservation programmes such as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves.

Dark Sky Parks and Reserves are more than just dark. They are places where exceptional starry skies are protected and valued as an important educational, cultural, scenic and natural resource. They offer a sanctuary and a cultural connection to the views enjoyed by our ancestors. By implementing environmentally sensitive lighting plans they provide an example of how our skies look without the impact of artificial light.

Walkers familiar with the remote Nephin Beg Mountain Range in Mayo will find it no surprise that dark sky readings here secured a Gold Tier classification for Ballycroy National Park and Wild Nephin. The Mayo award joins Kerry’s International Dark Sky Reserve in gaining international recognition as one of the best places in the world to stargaze. It is the first Dark Sky Park designation in Ireland and the first Irish National Park to fully embrace the preservation concept of dark skies. Students of GMIT Mayo’s Outdoor Education Course provided research and formed a local steering group to complete the application process.

In the UK several National Parks have qualified for dark sky designation and raised the importance of keeping rural skies naturally dark. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has produced significant research on the loss of the night and its affect on rural areas. Their 2016 “Night Blight” report makes for sober reading on the financial implications of light waste. Recent news reports highlight that over 80% of the UK population are unable to view the Milky Way. We have not reached that stage in Ireland, but we are lighting our skies at a rapid rate. By keeping our skies naturally dark we protect wildlife, attract off-season tourism and reduce our carbon footprint.

In Mayo, the newly recognised Dark Sky Park has several viewing sites for nocturnal explorers to enjoy the nightscapes. Astronomers use the Robert Lloyd Praegar Bothy at Letterkeen but those seeking a more remote experience can sleep under the stars at one of the Mountain Meitheal Huts along the Bangor Trail or Western Way. A red torch light will help to maintain night vision as your eyes can take up to 20 minutes to adjust to darkness. There’s a wealth of ideas online for unlocking the night such as the RSPB’s “Big Wild Sleepout” programme to encourage little dark sky rangers to learn about nature at night.

So the next time you are walking at night take a bit of extra time to enjoy the 360 degree experience of the nightscape above your head. You might be inspired by what you see…

“For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” — Vincent van Gogh

[article by Georgia MacMillan, written for Mountaineering Ireland’s Mountain Log]