Following the USA’s total solar eclipse in 2017, 'astrotourism' is big news. And the growing global light pollution problem means so-called 'dark sky parks' are more precious than ever. Jacqui Agate reports from Antelope Island in Utah, home to more dark sky parks than anywhere else in the world.
It’s 9.30pm and Antelope Island is inky black. Save for the flicker of a camp fire nearby, the isle is cloaked in darkness. I blink once, twice, adjusting my eyes to the ebony, then gaze upwards. It’s a murky night, but I can still make out what we came here to see: a curious cluster of stars winking through the cloud cover.
“Right, let’s see what we can spot,” Wendy Wilson, Assistant Park Manager and leader of tonight’s ‘star party’, breaks the silence. She peers upwards and shoots a green laser into the sky, tracing first a trio of stars in line, then a quadrilateral shape beside them. The light zips back towards her.
“That there is the Big Dipper,” announces Wilson. “Or you guys might call it the Plough?” I squint upwards, taking in the saucepan-shaped smatter of stars and, satisfied, murmur my appreciation. “Cool, huh?” she agrees, still looking skyward. “That’s the problem with the light pollution in cities – it takes away this sense of awe.”
We’re standing close to the White Rock Bay campground, less than three miles from the road we drove in on. But the entire isle, situated in the Great Salt Lake, rambles for some 28,000 acres – so the fact that Antelope Island is now a ‘dark sky park’ is no small feat. Parks are awarded accreditation by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) for the ‘quality’ of their starry night skies, and their continued pledge to preserve them.
Antelope Island was labelled as such in 2017 – and Utah now has more dark sky-certified spots than any other region on Earth (11 in total, though the list is ever-expanding). As light pollution continues to scourge our skies, it’s never been more imperative to protect them.
Science Advances journal claims that the percentage of artificially lit areas across the world grew by 2.2% percent per year between 2012 and 2016. That, says Wilson, can have a devastating effect on both wildlife and human beings themselves.
“Wildlife uses the cover of night for hunting, migrating, breeding and resting. Darkness is also critical for our own ability to produce melatonin, which regulates sleep and wakefulness,” Wilson explains. “Pretty much anything people may be passionate about is impacted by light pollution: human health, safety, air quality, saving money, wildlife and being connected to the natural world,” she continues.
And, given it’s on the doorstep of the Wasatch Front – the most populous part of Utah – Antelope Island is as vulnerable as anywhere to this form of pollution. But luckily, Wilson claims, the island has so far managed to preserve its glittering night skies.
Park managers make sure any lighting on the site adheres to dark sky standards (“It simply means using night lights appropriately, and ensuring light is only falling where we need it, when we need it.”) They work with local communities to help them make better lighting choices and run events such as star parties and night-time photography courses to get the public excited too.
And it seems our appetite for ‘astrotourism’ is growing. According to Airbnb, areas geared up for dark sky activities are trending globally, with some 3,000 of their listed properties now offering telescopes. The United States, France and Italy, they add, are the main countries with ‘stargazing-ready listings’.
Following the Big Dipper with my eyes once more, I find it little wonder. In cities and towns, these brushes with the cosmos are few and far between. And sure enough, as we drive back towards the Wasatch Front, the sky is bleached with light once more, and Antelope Island fades to black.
Top image: Antelope Island starry night © Dan Ransom