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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Dark Sky

Air Date: Week of November 12, 1999

Correspondent Bob Carty reports from Ontario, Canada on the creation of the world's first Dark Sky Reserve. It's an area where lights and development are prohibited so that sky watchers can get a clear view.

Transcript

CURWOOD: If you live near a city, you probably won't be able to see much of the Leonids meteor showers. Lights from homes and offices and shopping malls will bounce off the sky and obscure the view. But now there is a place to go for those who want to recapture the wonders of the night sky. In the Canadian province of Ontario, star lovers have won government support to create the world's first dark sky reserve. Bob Carty has this report.

(Music up and under: "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

CARTY: Our family's summer reunion is sometimes held at a lakeside cottage, and this year, while the adults chatted after dinner, I wandered down the lake, where a gaggle of nieces and nephews sat on a sandy beach under a night canopy.

CHILD 1: There's the Big Dipper.

CHILD 2: I see a triangle.

CHILD 3: Like, if you look for a while you can see, like, shooting stars, and they're really cool. And you can see satellites moving, and you can have like a little contest to see who can spot more satellites in one hour.

CHILD 4: You can see Mars. It's straight ahead. It's sort of a big ball. It's one of the brightest things in the sky. And to me it looks sort of an orange-red. I'm sure that's Mars.

CHILD 5: Looks like a big flood of stars.

CARTY: These young people are lucky. When they come here they get to see something they can never see in the city: a clear, dark night sky.

CHILD 6: I live in the city, and at night it’s, like, so much pollution.

CHILD 7: You can't see a lot of the stars because of all the lights.

CHILD 8: It's like a reddish, purplish pink, because I don't know, at the night, yeah, it's like purplish with pollution and clouds and gray.

(Sirens)

DICKENSON: Astronomers call it light pollution. It's civilization. We have lots of artificial light at night. And virtually all astronomers say you switch on a light and you switch off a star.

CARTY: Terry Dickenson is the editor of Sky News Magazine, and the author of many books on astronomy. His life has paralleled the growth of large cities, and the disappearance of starry, starry nights.

DICKENSON: In the 1950s, as a youngster, I lived on the edge of a very large city. And I was able to see the Milky Way from my back yard. I know this because I kept a little notebook when I got my first telescope. Now when I go back to the very spot where I made those observations, I can see maybe five or six stars. And this is not an isolated incident. Many people, for the first time in history, have never seen the natural beauty of a pristine night sky.

(Sirens)

CARTY: And Terry Dickenson says we're not even aware that we've lost what our ancestors took for granted. Though sometimes there is an epiphany. Like in Los Angeles, in 1994. A nighttime earthquake cut off power in most of the Los Angeles basin. People scurried outside onto the streets in fear of aftershocks. And then, they looked up.

DICKENSON: And people were standing out, and they noticed this strange cloud, what was later described as a cloud, dividing the sky in half. It looked completely bizarre and alien to so many people, that the next day and for subsequent days on radio talk shows, police and emergency services were receiving calls about this strange cloud, and the strange appearance of the night sky. Many people were suggesting that the cloud was caused by the earthquake. It was the Milky Way, of course.

(Music up and under: "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

CARTY: What do you do when a wonder of nature disappears? At first you drive several hours out of the city to get a clear view. But then the lights follow you, even to rural towns and back roads. That's what happened to Peter Goering. And when Peter Goering saw the stars disappearing from his night skies, he decided to do something about it.

(Crickets)

GOERING: This is what we call the heart of cottage country, about a two-hour drive north of an area where you've got about four million people in the greater Toronto area. And actually, we're heading really towards the world's first dark sky preserve.

(A car door opens, closes)

CARTY: It is just after sunset and Peter Goering is driving me down a little-used country road, heading away from the lakes of Muskoka. Peter Goering is a retired architect. All his life he's put up buildings. But the greatest creation in his career may be something without cement and mortar. Peter Goering is the architect of the world's first dark park.

GOERING: Now, I just want to point out, as we're coming along now, we're beginning to rise a little bit. And you'll notice now that the trees are much shorter, much further apart, and you have a lot of bushes and things. So it's getting quite open.

CARTY: So this is part of the Canadian shield, pre-Cambrian shield rock.

GOERING: Yes.

CARTY: And very, very little soil here?

GOERING: Yeah, it's very little soil cover, and that's of course the reason that you have such sparse growth. Ah, now we've just reached the point where we turn off. There is a sign here which was erected last summer, and here it says, "The Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve."

CARTY: There are many reasons this piece of pre-Cambrian rock is ideal for a dark sky reserve. It's within two hours of a mega-city, so it's far enough away from city lights, but close enough to be accessible. And it's on 5,000 acres of government-owned land that's largely undeveloped and unpopulated.

(Footfalls, crickets)

CARTY: A flashlight guides us down a narrow trail. We walk on pink and gray granite, through ferns and dwarf pines. But other than this trail and a single sign, there's nothing here. And that may be one of the reasons Peter Goering got his idea through the political hoops and red tape of several levels of government. Most politicians and bureaucrats were enchanted with the idea, and smitten, frankly, with the lack of a price tag.

GOERING: One of the wonderful things about it is that there's no money involved, because there will be no buildings or support structures or other things, put roads in, or anything like that. Nothing is going to be obvious. It's all going to be very quiet, and totally unstructured. And I think that's one of the wonderful things about it: no batteries required.

(Footfalls)

CARTY: A ten-minute walk brings us up to one of the viewing locations, a 60-foot slab of granite that rises above the tree line. Up here, there's almost a prairie kind of feeling. The forest is a flat plain, and the sky a huge dome.

(Crickets)

GOERING: And directly up above, you notice three very bright stars, part of what's called the Summer Triangle. To the south there is the constellation of Scorpio, and also one constellation, which looks like a teapot. The teapot which is tilted to the right, and the steam which is coming out of the spout itself, forms the Milky Way, which then rises up overhead. I mean (laughs) there are so many, you just can't possibly count the number of stars. And the other thing, of course, is if there are any bright planets, like Venus or Jupiter, they can be so bright that they can actually cast a shadow. And that's quite astonishing to see.

(Music up and under: "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

CARTY: Peter Goering says the dark sky reserve is now starting to attract amateur astronomers. In the future he hopes tourists will come, and that is part of the attraction for the local government. In return, officials will prohibit development that would bring lights into the reserve. Still, supporters of the dark park will have to work with nearby towns to prevent the encroachment of new light pollution in the future. Terry Dickenson says the international dark sky movement is not against night lighting, but there's a lot that is simply not needed. It doesn't help us see in the dark, but just splashes off into space. And Dickenson says the worst offender is the common street lamp.

DICKENSON: You can see those lights when you fly over a city in an airplane. You can see the street lights. You shouldn't be able to; it's just bad design. Parking lots illuminated all night clearly are a waste, and it would be nice to see timers on those kinds of lights. It's also not necessary to illuminate billboards from the bottom up, because a lot of the light spills into the sky. That's pure waste, estimated by the International Dark Sky Association to be in the region, in North America, of one to two billion dollars a year.

(Footfalls)

CARTY: This dark sky reserve has made news around the world, and it's already encouraging others to lobby and pressure for a dark park of their own. Peter Goering hopes it will conserve something he wants his grandchildren and their children to experience. Something that is about more than just stars and science. An experience that kindles a reflection about who we are and what we are doing.

GOERING: In the more recent past, we were able to step out in our back yards and look up at the sky. And feast on what we could see up there. But that's become more and more blurred as we've developed further, as technology has begun to overpower us in many ways. So, the idea of creating a reserve, in effect, is a sign of failure, and perhaps that's why people are interested.

(Children sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star")

CHILD 1: When you look up in the sky and you see there's so much stuff, like, it makes you feel so small, because it looks so big.

CHILD 2: Just the prospect, I think, of what's out there, there's just so many things beyond our planet. And when you look up at all the stars, you really realize that. It just makes you realize that you're not, the Earth is not the center of the universe. It's just, there's so much more.

(Singing continues; fade to piano music up and under)

CURWOOD: Our feature on the dark sky preserve was produced by Bob Carty.

 

 

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