By John McFerrin
International Dark Sky Week is coming up April 5-12. West Virginia has several reasons, and places, to celebrate.
Dark Sky Week is a project of the International Dark Sky Association. Since 2013 it has been held with a goal of raising awareness about light pollution’s many negative effects. It is always held when the sky is darkest and the stars most visible.
Among its activities, the International Dark Sky Association designates locations where there is exceptional darkness. It does through a rigorous process that includes measures of darkness in a location as well as steps taken to protect the darkness of the place. Such steps could include such things as making sure that all light fixtures are designed so that they deflect light downward.
West Virginia has several places that are recognized, both formally and informally, as dark sky locations. Both Spruce Knob and the Calhoun County Park have been recognized by the state of West Virginia as dark sky locations. In addition, Forbes magazine has touted Eastern West Virginia as a destination where beleaguered Washington, D.C. residents could escape their city’s light pollution. The West Virginia Tourism Office adds the Green Bank Observatory and Cranberry Glades to the list. While not officially promoted by the Tourism Office, wilderness areas such as Dolly Sods and various old fire towers also offer the experience of dark skies.
The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has had a minor, supporting role in one effort at getting Dark Sky recognition. The Watoga State Park Foundation is in the middle of an effort to have Watoga State Park and the adjacent Calvin Price State Forest designated as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. It is a long process with lots of data to submit, documents to complete, etc. that usually takes about two years. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy wrote a letter in support of the application.
Of course, the very idea of dark skies and the idea that there could ever be something such as the International Dark Sky Association devoted to preserving them are modern ideas. Before electricity became common, all the skies were dark skies. The idea that there could be such a thing as “light pollution” was foreign.
Not any more. The International Dark Sky Association has sections on Wildlife and Ecosystems; Energy Waste; Lighting, Crime and Safety; Night Sky Heritage; and Human Health. Just in the section on Wildlife and Ecosystems it says this:
For billions of years, all life has relied on Earth’s predictable rhythm of day and night. It’s encoded in the DNA of all plants and animals. Humans have radically disrupted this cycle by lighting up the night.
Plants and animals depend on Earth’s daily cycle of light and dark rhythm to govern life-sustaining behaviors such as reproduction, nourishment, sleep and protection from predators.
Scientific evidence suggests that artificial light at night has negative and deadly effects on many creatures including amphibians, birds, mammals, insects and plants.
Artificial Lights Disrupt the World’s Ecosystems
Nocturnal animals sleep during the day and are active at night. Light pollution radically alters their nighttime environment by turning night into day.
According to research scientist Christopher Kyba, for nocturnal animals, “the introduction of artificial light probably represents the most drastic change human beings have made to their environment.”
“Predators use light to hunt, and prey species use darkness as cover,” Kyba explains “Near cities, cloudy skies are now hundreds, or even thousands of times brighter than they were 200 years ago. We are only beginning to learn what a drastic effect this has had on nocturnal ecology.”
Glare from artificial lights can also impact wetland habitats that are home to amphibians such as frogs and toads, whose nighttime croaking is part of the breeding ritual. Artificial lights disrupt this nocturnal activity, interfering with reproduction and reducing populations.
Artificial Lights Can Lead Baby Sea turtles to their Demise
Sea turtles live in the ocean but hatch at night on the beach. Hatchlings find the sea by detecting the bright horizon over the ocean. Artificial lights draw them away from the ocean. In Florida alone, millions of hatchlings die this way every year.
Artificial Lights have Devastating Effects on Many Bird Species
Birds that migrate or hunt at night navigate by moonlight and starlight. Artificial light can cause them to wander off course and toward the dangerous nighttime landscapes of cities. Every year millions of birds die colliding with needlessly illuminated buildings and towers. Migratory birds depend on cues from properly timed seasonal schedules. Artificial lights can cause them to migrate too early or too late and miss ideal climate conditions for nesting, foraging and other behaviors.
Ecosystems: Everything is Connected
Many insects are drawn to light, but artificial lights can create a fatal attraction. Declining insect populations negatively impact all species that rely on insects for food or pollination. Some predators exploit this attraction to their advantage, affecting food webs in unanticipated ways.
For more about the effect of light in other ways, go to darksky.org. While there, be sure to click the links to play with the way cool map showing the level of darkness in different parts of the world. See how West Virginia compares with the rest of the Eastern United States (way darker) or the big states out west where there are fewer people (about as dark).