WEST GLACIER – As civil twilight became nautical twilight, and nautical twilight became astronomical twilight, 40 people formed a semi-circle around Dave Ingram in the parking lot of the Apgar Transit Center. With a green laser pointer, Ingram, a volunteer with the International Dark-Sky Association, pointed out all of the stars, planets and galaxies the crowd would see that evening.
In the next three hours there would be 75 to 100 identifiable objects in the sky above, along with 4,000 stars. Early in the evening, as the growing group of 40 arched their necks to the twilight sky, it was hard to believe. For some people it would be the first time they would ever see the Milky Way, including Trish Machuca of Las Vegas.
“We see lots of lights, but we never see the stars,” she said.
Nearly two-thirds of people in the continental United States cannot see the Milky Way from where they live. As cities grow, the number of places where someone can look up and see a true night sky is dwindling. It is especially true in the clear air of the West, where light pollution can affect a night sky nearly 200 miles away.
Now, institutions like the National Park Service are working with groups like the nonprofit International Dark-Sky Association to protect a vanishing resource in North America. Since 2006, 10 places around the world have been certified as International Dark-Sky Parks, including seven in the United States. Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah was the first park to receive the designation and now Waterton Lakes National Park and Glacier National Park are looking to become the first cross-boundary dark skies preserve. As the parks work toward that designation, officials are realizing that natural night skies are becoming a big attraction.
“There are a lot of visitors who want to see a night sky, to show their kids a dark sky, and they are coming to their national parks to do that,” said Chad Moore of the National Park Service’s Night Skies Program.
Moore helped establish the Night Skies Program in 1999 when he was at Pinnacles National Monument in California. As a scientist there, he had noticed that the night sky wasn’t as vibrant as it once was and he began asking people about what programs the Park Service had to preserve it.
“I asked around and I always got the same response from everyone: ‘I don’t know, but when you find out, let me know,’” he said.
Since then, Moore has traveled from his home base in Fort Collins, Colo. to parks all across the West to quantify the darkness of night skies. Using sensitive digital cameras, Moore can take a picture of a night sky and then compare it to nearby stars. From there he can calculate how much light pollution is affecting the sky.
According to Scott Kardel of the International Dark-Sky Association, an increase in light pollution can negatively harm both humans and animals. Kardel said animals, specifically migratory birds, are often confused by bright nighttime lighting and sometimes will get lost or fly into objects. For humans an increase of night light or loss of a normal sleep cycle can suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that maintains the body’s circadian rhythm. A recent study by the American Medical Association has suggested that less melatonin can lead to an increased risk of cancer.
But Kardel said the reasons to protect the night skies and limit light pollution go beyond physical health.
“The night sky has been the source of inspiration and awe for every civilization ever and we can’t cut ourselves off from that,” he said.
And now the light from urban areas is sneaking into more rural spaces. Moore said on some remote mountaintops in the West, the light dome of a city 200 miles away can be seen and within 50 miles it can dominate the sky. Moore has data from parks around the country, including Glacier, but his four-person team can only process so much information and thus it may be another year before we know the exact condition of the park’s night sky. But Moore said “there are dark skies to be proud of in Glacier National Park.”
In hopes of preserving the darkness, Moore’s night sky team and the International Dark-Sky Association is pushing for more responsible lighting both inside and outside of national parks and other swaths of public land. Dark sky-friendly lighting includes making sure a light source only illuminates a space below, not above the horizontal line. Moore said warmer light, like those with an orange or yellow hue, is more natural and less intrusive. He also said picking the right amount of light for a dark area is important.
“It’s a common mistake to think, ‘oh it’s dark out there so I need a bright light,’ because you don’t,” he said.
Moore said dark sky-appropriate lighting can be more expensive up front, but can pay for itself within a few years.
Changing lights is only one of a handful of things a park must do to become certified by the Dark-Sky Association, according to Moore, who works with parks on getting their designation. He said a park must commit to all future light improvements and educate the public about the importance of preserving night skies.
Although they are still early in the application process, officials from both Glacier and Waterton Lakes parks said the area could be designated as the first cross-boundary dark sky preserve in the next few years.
“We’re very hopeful that since we already meet a lot of the requirements that we’ll be able to be designated soon, maybe even in the next two to three years,” said Locke Marshall, visitor experience manager for Waterton Lakes.
A large part of the certification is education. For the last few years, Glacier National Park has hosted volunteers from the International Dark-Sky Association to conduct an astronomy program at St. Mary on the east side of the park. This year it has been expanded to Apgar on the west side. In the first week, more than 800 people signed up for the program.
Leading the evening presentation is Ingram, a chapter leader in the Dark-Sky Association. He is spending seven weeks in Glacier National Park volunteering his time to show visitors a night sky they may not be able to see at home.
“You come to Glacier for the huckleberry pie, well it’s the same with stars,” he said, as he set up a telescope in the Apgar Transit Center parking lot. “It’s just spectacular.”
Ingram, who lives in Seattle, said he first became interested in the night sky when he was a kid, watching the initial American space missions. Even four decades later, Ingram still vividly remembers the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. It is the same for Russ Lucas from Columbia Falls, who is an active member of the Big Sky Astronomy Club.
“I remember Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon and all of the space missions going up,” he said. “It was exciting.”
Lucas was helping Ingram on a Wednesday night and setting up his own telescope. It didn’t take long for a line of curious visitors to form. Through the massive lens, visitors were able to see Saturn and its rings, and almost every time someone leaned down to look through the scope they were intrigued by what they saw. Lucas said he occasionally has to reassure people that what they’re seeing is real.
“It’s like you’re looking at a photo, but you know it’s real. It’s just amazing,” one visitor said. “It’s like you could just reach out and grab it,” said another.
Although there are fewer and fewer places to see a truly dark sky – places like Glacier – Moore said fighting light pollution and protecting the night is a worthy cause.
“It’s a trend that can be reversed,” Moore said. “I wouldn’t be doing this with my career if I didn’t think we could change it.”
Ingram said better science and astronomy education can help, and programs like those hosted in Glacier can make a difference. He sees it every time a kid looks into his telescope.
“When they walk up to the telescope, they don’t know what to expect,” he said. “But when they look and say ‘oh wow,’ it’s just electrifying.”
Glacier National Park, in coordination with the International Dark-Sky Association, is hosting a summer astronomy program at the Apgar Transit Center from 10 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Sunday. On the east side the event is held nightly from 10 p.m. to midnight at the St. Mary Visitor Center.
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