Hundreds of years ago, people could turn their faces to the night sky and marvel at a clear view of the stars, like the constellations in the Milky Way. Today those sights are often obstructed by light pollution from sprawling cities. However, there is a movement to recapture the darkness by creating areas where artificial light is carefully restricted. Dark Sky Preserves have been gaining traction in recent decades, giving people a chance to see what the night sky might have looked like before the advent of electricity.
And when people go camping, they don’t want to feel like they’re in the middle of the city. Those folks will be excited to learn that Terra Nova National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador officially received its Dark Sky Preserve designation in February 2018 from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Simply put, “It’s an area where we’ve established protective measures or plan to reduce artificial light pollution to increase people’s ability to enjoy the night sky, to try to reduce energy consumption, and to try to create both ecological and experiential benefits for people,” explains Adie Hayes, an interpretation officer working at Terra Nova National Park.
“For Newfoundlanders, I think we can become quite used to having access to open spaces and spaces that are less densely populated, where there’s not as much light pollution,” says Adie. “This kind of program is meant to maintain that and ensure that it’s protected and doesn’t change over time. So whether it’s for campers in the park, or people who are living in local communities, or anyone in the region, anyone in the province. What we’re hoping to do is encourage them to manage light pollution around their properties and around their communities, in our parks, so that we wind up with a lower [light pollution] level as a whole.”
There are a few locations in the park that have been identified as observation sites, like Sandy Pond and the Blue Hill Lookout. Parts of the park will be accessible throughout the year so people can enjoy the preserve, even in winter.
Coexisting with Nature
Dark Sky Preserves aren’t just for humans, though; they’re beneficial to animals as well. As Adie explains, “Nocturnal animals and quite a few plant species, their natural rhythms are very dependent on light. So light triggers certain things that may help them with migration patterns; it may help determine when they feed, when they prey, when they eat, reproductive cycles, all those things. So artificial light can negatively impact those cycles for a lot of different species.” For instance, the park is home to two bat species that are federally listed as endangered. They also happen to be primarily nocturnal animals, so limiting light pollution helps conservation efforts.
Dark Sky Preserves are an important part of coexisting with nature. We want to go into these parks, but we also don’t want to negatively impact nature when we do so. “A big part of what Parks Canada does, in terms of protection and conservation, is try to find that balance with enjoyment,” she says. “So we’re always trying to maintain the ecological integrity of our parks or trying to make sure things stay as close to their natural state as they can, so we’re not negatively impacting things that are here.”
Terra Nova National Park is the country’s 20th Dark Sky Preserve; more than half of those are found in Canadian national parks. To Adie, it’s a sign that the Dark Sky Preserve program is well aligned with Parks Canada’s mandate, which is focused on conservation and environmental protection, as well as getting people out to enjoy the parks.
Terra Nova National Park’s preserve took several years to get off the ground. The process began in 2014, when the Park reached out to the St. John’s branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The Park drafted a proposal to meet the society’s Dark Sky Preserve program requirements and the St. John’s branch agreed to sponsor them.
Adie expects to see more people visiting the Park for the purpose of enjoying the night sky, especially for events like meteor showers. “I think it’s going to continue to grow in popularity. I think there’s a lot of interest around the sky, a lot of interest around how to experience it. So we’ve had great engagement so far,” she says.
“Once people come and experience it once and they see how phenomenal the skies are here, and what it’s like to experience it alongside a group like [the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada], who are so knowledgeable about what you’re seeing, they’re coming back the next year and they’re bringing their friends and family with them. So I think it’s going to be an offer that’s going to continue to grow.”