Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

Preserving dark skies from light pollution so we can still wonder at the stars

A new dark sky preserve in Ontario joins dozens worldwide where people can see the light of the universe as it shines on Earth

A new dark sky preserve in Ontario joins dozens worldwide

A night sky picture at the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory (Bruce Waters, cc-by-sa-4.0)

Under a gibbous moon, with the planets Mars and Saturn shining down from a star studded sky, the Killarney Provincial Park Dark Sky Preserve officially opened on Sept. 22 to the delight of a couple of hundred skywatchers.  

Killarney Park is a beautiful landscape of white hills, deep blue lakes, islands and coastline about three hours north of Toronto on the shores of Georgian Bay. It's been established as a dark sky preserve in part to celebrate 125 years of Ontario Provincial Parks. The large wilderness areas of the park will be protected from light pollution to ensure that people can truly appreciate the full glory of the night sky.

With more people living in urban areas, the night sky has disappeared under the haze of light pollution. On a clear night in an average city, perhaps 200 stars might be visible. But in a wilderness environment you can see more than 2000 stars with the naked eye.

They reach from horizon to horizon, crowned by the ghostly glow of our Milky Way Galaxy arching overhead. It's a sight fewer and fewer people have the opportunity to see.

One of the two telescopes at the KIllarney Provincial Park Observatory (Bruce Waters, cc-by-sa-4.0)

More than a dozen dark sky preserves have been established across the country by Parks Canada from Terra Nova National Park in Newfoundland to Jasper National Park in Alberta. The International Dark Sky Association has 37 sites around the world. In addition, local astronomy groups have established many smaller dark sites in regional parks.

In Canada, to become a dark sky reserve an area must meet requirements established by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. These involve adjusting, retrofitting or eliminating light fixtures so any light that is required shines downwards, and offering night sky educational programs for the public. Normally parks offer interpretive programs about the local environment during the day, but they often leave out the environment overhead at night.

Killarney has taken the educational component one step further with the construction of two capable observatories. One houses an 8-inch telescope, the other a 16-inch fully automated instrument that can be operated from a smartphone.

In addition, members of local amateur astronomy groups bring their telescopes for star parties, so there are plenty of opportunities for people to get close up views of astronomical objects. These might include craters on the moon, or the flower-like shapes of nebulae between the stars.

A telescope dome at the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory with the Milky Way in the background (Bruce Waters, cc-by-sa-4.0)

It was a magical moment at opening night to watch a newcomer peer into an eyepiece for the first time and squeal with delight, "Oh my god! I can see the rings of Saturn!" —​ another convert to the wonders of the universe.

Setting aside large areas of darkness does more than permit parks to introduce visitors to the majesty of the night sky. Animals benefit as well. Many birds, bats, insects, amphibians and mammals are active at night and can be disturbed by artificial lighting — just watch bugs swarming around a light bulb.

Many migratory birds make their long journeys at night to avoid predators, navigating by starlight. But they can be confused by city lights. Thousands are killed every year by running into tall buildings glowing with lights shining in empty offices.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have sent down beautiful photos of our cities at night. Satellite images have been assembled into a global view of our planet at night called the "black marble" in which you can see the outlines of the continents defined by city lights.

It's beautiful to look at, but this light shining upwards is symbolic of how wasteful we are when it comes to energy. All that light leaking into space is light we do not use. Useful light shines downwards to our feet so we can see where we are going.
An aerial view of the two telescopes that make up the Killarney Provincial Park Observatory (Colin Durocher)

Any light shining upwards is wasted energy, and based on the images from space, it almost seems like we throw away about as much as we use. It's symbolic, in a way, of the way we waste resources more generally — polluting our environment the way we pollute the sky with light.

Standing under a truly dark sky is a humbling experience. You come to appreciate not only the vastness of space, but the smallness of our planet. Looking outwards makes you appreciate how special the Earth is — a tiny safe haven in an unimaginably large, diverse, endlessly fascinating, but at the same time, hostile universe.

Have a look some time.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.


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