By Dr. Kristin Drexler
Faculty Member, School of STEM
One of the best things about living in the western U.S. is stargazing under dark skies. April 22 is not only Earth Day and part of National Park Week, but it also kicks off International Dark Sky Week.
Promoted by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA) in Tucson, Arizona, International Dark Sky Week runs from April 22-30. This event is designed to educate the public and inspire people to take action to preserve our dark skies.
A Brief History of International Dark Sky Week
High school student Jennifer Barlow of Midlothian, Virginia, originally created International Dark Sky Week in 2003. Now, International Dark Sky Week has become a worldwide movement.
According to Planeta, Barlow said she started this event so people could “see the wonder of the night sky without the effects of light pollution. The universe is our view into our past and our vision into the future. I want to help preserve its wonder.”
Why Are Dark Skies Important?
Dark skies are incredibly valuable – they’ve inspired art, culture and science development. However, dark skies are disappearing fast. According to USA Today: “Two-thirds of Americans can’t see the Milky Way from their homes anymore; for many of us, the glow of neon signs and street lights has overtaken those of the cosmos.”
Before the invention of electric light in the 1800s, dark skies had tremendous value. IDSA notes: “Until recently, for all of human history, our ancestors experienced a sky brimming with stars – a night sky that inspired science, religion, philosophy, art and literature, including some of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets.
Van Gogh painted his famous ‘Starry Night’ in Saint Rémy, France, in 1889. Now, the Milky Way can no longer be seen from there.”
Sadly, the night sky is becoming unknown to younger generations, with urban and suburban children unable to see the Milky Way. The dark sky is our common heritage to protect from further light pollution.
Dark skies are particularly important for nocturnal animals, migrating birds, sea turtle hatchlings and insects. The Dark Sky Initiative states that light pollution can “disrupt wildlife, impact human health, waste energy, contribute to climate change, and block our view of the universe.”
Light Pollution Impacts Human Health
Light pollution is any artificial light that is not needed or excessive. Light pollution may seem harmless, but IDSA says light pollution is increasing at “two times the rate of population growth and 83% of the global population lives under a light-polluted sky.”
ISDA connects light pollution to negative impacts on human health, including the suppression of melatonin, a cancer-fighting hormone. According to ISDA, “Excessive exposure to artificial light at night, particularly blue light, has also been linked to increased risks for obesity, depression, sleep disorders, diabetes and breast cancer.”
What We Can Do to Protect Dark Skies
The main actions we can take to protect our night skies are to reduce or minimize the growth of light pollution. According to Earth and Sky, the goals for International Dark Sky Week include turning off unneeded exterior lights and considering leaving them off all year long.
In addition, International Dark Sky Week is a good time to learn about the stars and constellations, as well as get others to join the global dark sky movement.
The IDSA’s Dark Sky movement “is working to bring better lighting to communities around the world so that all can thrive.” We can also help by becoming a dark sky advocate and a citizen scientist by contributing to Globe at Night. Globe at Night is “an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure and submit their night sky brightness observations.”
Finding Dark Skies Near You
Use this light pollution map to locate the dark skies near you. First, notice the astounding amount of light pollution across the globe. Second, zoom into your area. How many miles away is the nearest dark sky to you?
Stargazing Near the New Moon
The New Moon occurs on April 30 this year; around this time period is the best time for stargazing. You can also be a part of the Dark Sky Movement and Globe at Night by observing the dark sky near you and sending in your observations to Globe at Night.
It’s easy!All you need is a computer or smartphone to follow these simple steps from Globe at Night.
Between April 22-30, Globe at Night suggests that you “Go outside more than an hour after sunset (8-10 p.m. local time). The Moon should not be up. Let your eyes become used to the dark for 10 minutes before your first observation.”
After your eyes are accustomed to your dark environment, then Globe at Night says you should:
- Use a night sky app on your phone to find the constellation Leo from where you are.
- Go to the Globe at Night report page to start entering Globe at Night measurements. Make sure you are in “nighttime version.”
- With a smartphone, the night sky app will put in the date, the time and your location (latitude/longitude) into the Globe at Night report page automatically. With a computer, you’ll need to type them into the website’s form. For your location, type in your street address, city, state or province, and country.
- Choose the star chart that most closely resembles what you see around your constellation. What is the faintest star you can see in the sky and find in the chart?
- Chose the amount of cloud cover at the time of your night sky observation and click or tap on the “SUBMIT DATA” button.
The Best Spots for Stargazing in the US
In the southwestern U.S., there is less light pollution, and it is the best area in the country for stargazing. USA Today has selected some of the best stargazing spots:
- Death Valley National Park, California
- Borrego Springs, California
- Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona
- Flagstaff, Arizona
- Goldendale Observatory State Park, Washington
- Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
- Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico
- Clayton Lake State Park, New Mexico
You can find more Dark Sky places on this IDSA map.
Science-Affiliated Student Organizations at the University
To learn more about the issues related to dark skies, please consider joining one of these student organizations:
- American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA)
- Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)
- Association of Women in Science (AWIS)
- Women in STEM (wSTEM)
- National Association of Environmental Professionals (NEAP)
- Save the Earth
For more information on value of dark skies, I recommend that you watch Paul Bogard’s TED talk, “Why We Need Darkness.” Bogard’s book, “The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light,” is also good reading.
About the Author
Dr. Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member in the Space Studies and Earth Sciences Department. She teaches geography, environmental science, earth system history, conservation of natural resources, and earth and planetary sustainability for the School of STEM. She earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at New Mexico State University by researching socioecological systems, sustainable agroecology and community education. She earned her Master of Arts in international affairs with an emphasis in natural resources management from Ohio University. Dr. Drexler earned the Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award for the APUS School of STEM (2020) and the Dr. Wallace E. Boston Leadership Award for American Public University System (2021).
Kristin has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize regarding agroforestry, conservation and sustainable agriculture. Until she became a full-time instructor with APU in 2009, she was an environmental scientist in New Mexico, conducting field biology surveys and environmental impact analyses. Drexler founded the Belize Field School Program at NMSU, coordinating short courses in Belize in wildlife, agroforestry, marine ecology, and documentary film (2006-2014) and produced an award-winning short film, “Yochi” in 2017 about youth conservation and action against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. In the late 1990s, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize. She co-founded and serves on the board of directors of Full Basket Belize, a U.S. nonprofit that provides high school scholarships and community grants in Belize. Kristin serves as a faculty advisor for the university’s wSTEM and AWIS chapters. She also founded the “Science Talks with Dr. Drexler and Friends” lesson series for primary school (2020-21).