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Preserving the Night

Across the world, Dark Sky reserves help ensure a bright future for astronomical research

At night, the forest whispered its secrets. An elaborate outdoor holographic production billed as “Foresta Lumina” (lighted forest) brought dead trees back to life and played tricks on the humans passing by. In Quebec Province’s Eastern Townships, I hiked on the night-illuminated forest pathway past massive rock walls through clusters of glowing, Stonehenge-like cairns. All the while, the tree canopy lit from the underside in a red and green pinpoint pattern directed my gaze upward. Although I was perfectly safe, I realized that ancient peoples feared and respected the night. Attributing events in their lives to occult forces beyond their control, they spent centuries trying to light the dark.

Photo of Sowdonia Dark Sky ReservePhoto by Kris WilliamsSnowdonia National Park in Wales became the tenth Dark Sky Reserve in December 2015.

But now there is too much of a good thing.

At the eastern end of the province’s border with New Hampshire and Maine, I drove the winding, steep road of Mont Megantic National Park to the top. The summit is the site of two celestial observatories. The Astronomical Observatory is the larger of the two facilities and is reserved for scientific research. On the building’s facade, I paused at a photographic display of the astounding changes that the night sky had undergone from artificial light in relatively few years. A short distance down a wooded trail, the Popular Observatory is open to the public and used for park service interpretive programs. Here I met science communicator Remi Boucher a few hours later for the evening program.

As the thin clouds dissipated and a nearly full moon rose above the trees, the domed top of the observatory whirred and spun around like a giant cousin of R2D2 in Star Wars. Other than the twinkling stars slowly appearing in the sky, there wasn’t a single light visible on the expansive horizon. It was obvious why this mountaintop location was chosen for building an observatory. But it hadn’t always been so dark — just two decades earlier, there had been trouble brewing in galactic paradise as stars appeared to be dimming. 

“Toward the end of the 90s, scientific observations began to show a measurable increase in light interference,” Boucher said. “We wanted to make sure Mont Megantic remained a good observatory.”

Boucher and his colleagues began to speak at conferences and other gatherings of the scientific community about the growing issue of light pollution. Electrification and artificial light allowed cities to spring from the planet but now threatened the advancement of astronomical research not only in this corner of Quebec, but around the world. In 2003, Boucher and his supervisor, Sebastion Giguere were among a team to embark on a bold mission of creating the world’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, defined as “a public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment.”

Giguere’s team were the first to apply for the unique certification. Although most of the errant light at the observatories was coming from homes and businesses within a thirty-mile radius of the mountain, the city of Sherbrooke, which lay outside this core zone, accounted for a quarter of the light. Fortunately there were no other cities or large villages in this isolated area. However, any plan to preserve the night sky would need to address the safety, security, and business needs of Sherbrooke, a population hub.

The team began with several simple, common sense approaches to reducing light pollution in the region. Fixtures waste a lot of light by emitting it in directions where it is not required, thus needlessly contributing to light pollution. Designing fixtures that cast light downward, rather than disperse it widely, and requiring use of these more efficient fixtures, was one early fix implemented by the team. An estimated 2,500 light fixtures were replaced in the municipalities surrounding Mont-Megantic. Timing lighting to periods when people were present — for example, when entering and exiting their homes — was another part of the strategy.

Light is composed of several different wavelengths of energy, and blue light scatters sixteen times more than light at the red end of the spectrum. The human eye is also more sensitive to blue light. If the program could reduce the presence of blue light and replace it with less polluting amber light, the night sky would benefit. The team worked with lighting manufacturers, including Philips Lighting, to develop products that would fit these criteria.

Implementation of the program involved local hearings but was comprehensively designed and implemented at the provincial level, with tougher requirements the closer one got to the observatories. Compliance was mandated for home and business owners within the zones immediately surrounding the mountain, but the Quebec provincial government offered reimbursements of up to ninety percent for property owners’ costs to change their lighting to approved fixtures.  Some businesses, such as gasoline stations with pumps that required white lights, were granted limited exceptions to the stringent rules. But overall, there was little resistance among local community members, because the new lights also saved money by reducing energy costs.

Photo of Mont MeganticPhoto by O. TaillonThe Astronomical Observatory in Mont Megantic National Park. Mont Megantic became the world’s first Dark Sky Reserve in 2007.

With the successful implementation of the public awareness and conversion plan, Mont Megantic officially received the international designation of a Dark Sky Reserve from the International Dark Sky Association in September 2007. Since that time, eight other locations in New Zealand, the UK, Namibia, France and Germany have been certified, the most recent in Wales in 2015.

Guided by flat, softly glowing disks embedded in the gravel, I walked along the short path to the observatory’s entrance and took my seat inside. The dulcet tones of New Age music gently filled the circular room as the retractable panel in the dome slid open to reveal a night sky full of shimmering lights.

A young man wearing a pony tail under a wireless headset chattered about the operation of the telescope as well as the heavenly objects it was pointed toward. The audience members were invited to climb the short set of steps to look into the telescope’s lens as well as move freely to another smaller telescope set up outdoors. 

Throughout the evening, I peered at the moon in such extreme high definition that I could see rocky debris scattered in a pinwheel effect around a crater. I marveled at Saturn’s rings and it’s moon, Titan, orbiting the all-gas body. But the limit of my comprehension was tested when I viewed the fuzzy globular cluster of stars known as M13. A mere point of light itself in the endless sky, Messier 13, also known as M13, consists of stars that are light-years apart — pulsing light waves that were carrying critical information about the universe through space and time to where I was now standing. This information was reaching my eyes in large part due to the efforts of forward-thinking individuals who understood the value of preserving the night. 

Learn more about the Mont Megantic Observatory and the ASTROLab (which is open to visitors) here.

David Lee Drotar
David Lee Drotar's nature stories appear in USA Today, Mountain Living, The Globe & Mail, New York Post, The Buffalo News and numerous other publications. He is the author of seven books including Steep Passages: A Worldwide Eco-Adventurer Unlocks Nature's Spiritual Truths.

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