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Q & A with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

A shot of the milky way at Lake Annette. Photo -Ryan Bray, Parks Canada

A shot of the milky way at Lake Annette. Photo -Ryan Bray, Parks Canada.

For the next week and a half, all eyes will be focused on Jasper’s night sky. As the second largest dark sky preserve in Canada, Jasper offers some of the best night sky viewing in the country, and even the world.

A dark sky preserve is an area where no artificial lighting is visible and active measures are in place to educate the public and reduce light pollution.

Since receiving its designation as a dark sky preserve in 2011, Jasper has celebrated its night skies each October with the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. In anticipation of this year’s event, the Fitzhugh talked with Robert Dick, manager of the dark sky preserve program with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) and asked him a range of questions about dark sky preserves.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Fitz: What is the dark sky preserve program?

Robert Dick: The dark sky preserve program is a program that we set up around 2000 in response to an approach made by a fellow named Peter Goring of the Muskoka Heritage Foundation, as it was called in those days. Muskoka is north of Toronto and is the cottage country for Toronto. A couple years earlier they designated an area in that region and they called it the Torrance Barrens. He spent a lot of his life up there and knew the impact light has on the environment, so he decided to come up with the idea of a dark sky reserve and he approached us about it and we allowed it to grow wings.

Fitz: What is the process involved with becoming a dark sky preserve?

RD: The main thing to start with is compliance with the guidelines for outdoor lighting. This is generally a relatively easy thing to do in principle.

The problem is every park manager ends up putting in lights. They never take lights out, they always add more so they just accumulate over the years. The manager needs to figure out what lights they have—that requires an audit—go out and actually find these lights, and then rationalize if they really need them or not.

In most cases they can be removed because it really doesn’t matter. The park should also be compliant or at least have a plan and a schedule to be compliant. It’s expensive to replace old lights with new lights that are more compliant, so we give that flexibility to the park, but they should have a plan and a schedule to replace those lights.

The other aspect of it is outreach. They should communicate this information. Communicate the need to protect the natural night to their visitors so that the visitors take that back to their homes.

Another component is to look outside of the park because light pollution knows no boundaries. They should talk to communities around the park and in that way, as those communities grow, if they are approached early enough or often enough, then whatever lighting they put in will also be low impact and that will protect the park well into the future.

Fitz: Why are dark sky preserves important?

RD: The knee jerk answer is to protect the environment, but in the RASC we also have an agenda and the agenda is to raise public awareness of the need for night.

Even though we are an astronomical organization, we rebranded the dark sky preserves not just for astronomy, but for the environment.

The astronomy gives you the eye candy, but the environment is what you’re trying to save. What is needed is some tool or mechanism to show the public what can be done with very little light and they can’t get that out of the cities because cities by definition demand high impact lighting.

When the public sees what can be done with very, very little light they’re literally quite amazed with how little light you actually need.

It also lets them gain an appreciation for the night environment, because unless you are exposed to it there is no way you can really learn to appreciate it. By demonstrating this to the public, the public can then communicate these lessons back to their cities and in this way we can leverage the dark sky preserve to improve our city policies as well.

Fitz: What are the biggest threats to dark sky preserves?

RD: I think the greatest threat is complacency. People think it’s hopeless, you can’t fight a city, but you actually don’t fight with them, you work with them and inform them.

Another threat would be ignorance because people think light has no affect. We always take a human centric view of it and we use stories and analogies to explain why it doesn’t really matter.

Right at the top, along with complacency and ignorance, would be fear of darkness. That’s literally innate. We should be scared of the dark if we’re hunters and gatherers because there’s a lot of predators out there, however with our technology, with the way we behave now, really there is very little danger when we’re out in the country at night.

We manifest this innate fear as a fear of crime so we assume in the dark there is lots of crime, well it turns out there is almost no crime. There’s very little crime at night and most of the crime that does occur, especially violent crime, 70 per cent of it is between people that know each other.

Fitz: What are the minimum requirements for becoming a dark sky preserve?

RD: The minimum requirements are fully shielded light. Unfortunately industry is changing their definition of what fully shielded means. When it was written, fully shielded wasn’t actually the correct term, it’s suppose to be full cut off shielding [which] does not let any light above the horizon.

It also restricts the light that shines out of the fixture just below the horizon and the reason why that’s important for dark sky preserves is that that’s the light that shines for kilometres across the landscape. You can literally see that from 10 kilometres away. It’s obviously shining beyond where the light was initially needed and that affects the migration of rodents, insects, birds and so on.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has designated 17 areas dark sky preserves since 1999. The first was Torrance Barrens. Jasper received its designation in 2011, making it the largest dark sky preserve in Canada until Wood Buffalo National Park received its designation in 2013.

To learn more about dark sky preserves, check out the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s website at

Paul Clarke

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