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Dark skies reveal the brightest lights

The Milky Way is visible among other stars at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Emmet County, Mich.

The Milky Way is visible among other stars at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Emmet County, Mich.

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

Two-thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way at night where they live, says Mary Stewart Adams.  Adams is the program director for the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, located in Emmet County, Mich., where one can see the broad, bright band of stars composing the plane of our galaxy every night of the year.  Adams defines a dark sky park as “an area of land over which the night sky is protected from pollution and light trespass.”

In 2011, an Emmet County lighting ordinance, which follows criteria set by the International Dark Sky Association in Tucson, Ariz., allowed the Headlands to become one of only six existing dark sky parks in the United States and nine worldwide to receive such a designation. “It’s a rare distinction,” says Adams.

Sky quality meters measure the quality of darkness necessary to make a certifiable dark sky park.  Different atmospheric, geographic, topographic and climatic conditions can affect how amounts of light affect the overall quality of darkness, as does proximity to major cities — the greatest light polluters.

According to Adams, estimates say one-third of all artificial light used at night in the United States is spilled up into the night sky. Upward beaming light doesn’t improve the brightness or quality of light around us. If translated first into kilowatt hours and then into dollars, Adams estimates $2.2 billion worth of light is wasted every year in America alone. Non-renewable fossil fuels are often used to generate the waste. Shielding the top of the light and lowering the wattage of the bulbs are ways cities can eliminate light pollution and save money at the same time. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, lower wattage street lights are actually safer says Adams.  “For the human eye, its better to have gradual lighting rather than really hot light, because when you step out of that  glare of (bright) light you’re blinded,” she says. “There’s a danger zone around bright light.” Lower wattage lamps allow the eyes to see one’s surroundings both in and out of the lights

Allowing the skies to stay dark, doesn’t exclusively benefit stargazers and cash-strapped municipalities. Light pollution is a threat to wildlife. For example, the tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl — weighing on average only 2.8 ounces — is entirely nocturnal.  A yearly migratory route brings many of the owls from the Upper Peninsula to the Lower. When artificial lights brighten the night sky, these rare birds are vulnerable to predation.  The location of the Headlands park on the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula allows for the Saw-whets to cross the Straits of Mackinac, the shortest distance between the two peninsulas, under safety of the inky heavens.

In addition to the Milky Way and hundreds of other stars not visible in our cities and suburbs, the Headlands is a perfect place to observe the Aurora Borealis.   The “Northern Lights,” as they are also known, are a phenomenon of ephemeral, shifting sometimes vibrantly polychrome lights above the horizon caused by solar flares. Additionally, the Leonid  Meteor Shower will be observable at the park on the evening of Nov. 17.

Adams is passionate about using the heavens to teach about worldwide traditions. “In our public school curriculum we do teach about astronomy; we teach phases of the moon and some astronomical units — the more mathematically based, technological approach to science and astronomy — but we’re not teaching the cultural history,” she says. “Every culture around the world has its star lord. We’re participating in our environment: whether it’s on the earth or the celestial environment in which we find ourselves.  Always keep that connection alive. Access to a dark sky is a quality of life issue.”

For more information about visiting the Headlands or their monthly programs visit: http://www.emmetcounty.org/darkskypark/.  For predictions on the next occurrence of an Aurora visit: www.spaceweather.com.

 

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