ABOVE: City lights below can spoil our view of the stars above. Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO.

By Marnie Ogg

ASTRONOMERS NATURALLY REVEL IN THE DARK, yet for hundreds of years the disciples of the night sky have watched it disappear into a haze of light pollution. As the tentacles of urbanisation and artificial light encroach on even the darkest observation footholds in the world, we can no longer solve the problem simply by moving observatories from one remote place to the next.

The Southern Hemisphere has been slow to catch on to the dark sky trend that has been growing rapidly in countries north of the equator. The USA, Germany and Italy are leading the way with the publication of scientific research not only on the impact of artificial light, but also on the technologies that might help to reduce that impact. But the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance (ADSA) is seeing a growing number of light-savvy people reaching out for more information based on the trends in the Northern Hemisphere.

Australia now has three designated dark sky places — the Warrumbungle National Park in New South Wales, The Jump-Up at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs in Winton, Queensland, and the River Murray Dark Sky Reserve in South Australia. New Zealand also has three designated dark sky places — Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, Great Barrier Island and Stewart Island — and a well-formed plan to become the first ‘dark sky nation’.

Dark sky awareness is also no longer solely about preserving our view of the night sky; it has evolved to include biodiversity, ecosystems and human health. Yet even though the world has generally become more aware about preserving our environment, until recently this awareness has ended at sunset.

In its relatively short history, artificial light has had a significant impact on our night-time environment. Dr Kellie Pendoley, vice president of the International Dark-Sky Association and founding director of ADSA, was prominent in the creation of ADSA APPROVED, a scheme that certifies luminaires as night-sky friendly.

“As an Australian-based biologist researching the most appropriate techniques for monitoring light and studying its impact on marine turtles, I am regularly asked for advice on the most appropriate lights for use in environmentally sensitive areas and found it hard to point them in the right direction,” Dr Pendoley said.

Credit: Carlos A. Durán/ESO.

The ADSA APPROVED certification scheme has piqued the interest of Australasian lighting manufacturers and local councils wanting to comply with both the Australia/New Zealand Standards, as well as the National Light Pollution Guidelines released by the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment earlier this year.

Breaking the record

While councils and lighting designers are pivotal in the effort to reduce waste light, the key to leaving a legacy of stars for the future is public support — everyone needs to play a part, and there is evidence that this is happening. During International Dark Sky Week (April 19–26, 2020), 700 local citizen scientists took sky measurements using the Globe at Night app on the evening of April 23.

“The success was overwhelming,” said Globe at Night founder, Dr Constance Walker. “I’ve never seen so many readings in one night!” Until then, only a handful of measurements had been taken in the Southern Hemisphere, leaving scientists in the dark about the environment in which they lived.

Now, ADSA wants to do it again, this time challenging the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of people attempting an online sustainability activity. The topic is no surprise: light pollution. Supported by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, the aim is to get 10,000 participants out and into the night-time environment on June 21, the darkest and longest night of year. This is not about counting stars or proving you have the darkest skies, but rather is designed to identify and map pockets of light. City and rural dwellers are equally encouraged to make observations.

“Websites such as lightpollutionmap.info are an indication of what is seen from space, but to truly understand the impacts on ecology, we need land-based measurements,” said Dr Therésa Jones from the University of Melbourne’s Urban Light Lab, and an ADSA Director.

If ever there was a cause that amateur astronomers should get behind, it is reducing light pollution. This is something we can all solve together — and it starts in your own backyard. To register for the challenge, go to australasiandarkskyalliance.org.

Marnie Ogg has visited 75 countries in her career in the travel industry. She is a founder of the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance.