Nevada’s new dark sky sanctuary preserves our connection to the night

According to National Geographic, 80% of Americans cannot see the Milky Way anymore. Fabio Falchi, a researcher at the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy, notes that more than 75% of the populations of Chad and Madagascar – and practically all of the residents of the Azores – live under near perfect condition to witness the night sky in all its splendor. For much of the world, though, especially in developed countries, the wonders of the night sky are no longer available.

Ultimately, that means that much of the human population has lost a connection to the night sky. The International Dark Skies Association (IDSA) is working to raise awareness of that loss – one which many individuals might not recognize even exists. IDSA underscores the severing of a common and universal heritage based on witnessing the vastness of night and highlights how recent generations now lack regular contact with a dark and clear sky.

The Starry Night, oil on canvas, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889 [Museum of Modern Art, New York City].

This past week, IDSA announced that a remote corner of northwestern Nevada has joined a small handful of other locations to be designated a dark sky sanctuary. The area, Massacre Rim Wildlife Study Area in Washoe County, is somewhat tricky to find on a map. Massacre Rim is one of the darkest places in North America, and is now the world’s seventh area designated for the preservation of dark sky.

Massacre Rim, located south of the Sheldon National Antelope Refuge, is almost 11 hours north of Las Vegas and about 90 minutes east of Cedarville, California, the nearest somewhat large town. “While all of the wilderness areas and wilderness study areas in Nevada are special remote places,” explains Shaaron Netheron, Executive Director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness, “the Massacre Rim WSA stands out because it is so far from any major populated areas, making light pollution there next to immeasurable. People lucky enough to venture there on a clear moonless night will not only see the enormity of the Milky Way but will also be awestruck to view our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, with the naked eye.”

The International Dark Sky Association was founded 18 years ago with the hopes of encouraging communities around to world to protect their skies from light pollution. Dark sky sanctuaries are locations that merit distinction because of their nocturnal environment. While they are typically isolated geographically and thereby limited for public access, they represent some of the darkest places on the planet for viewing a night sky unaffected by the light pollution. The other sites with the sanctuary designation highlight the remoteness of such locations around the world:

      • Pitcairn Islands (British Overseas Territory)
      • Gabriela Mistral (Chile)
      • Cosmic Campground (U.S.A.)
      • Devil’s River State Natural Area – Del Norte Unit (U.S.A)
      • Rainbow Bridge National Monument (U.S.A.)
      • Massacre Rim (U.S.A.)
      • Aotea / Great Barrier Island (New Zealand)
      • Stewart Island / Rakiura (New Zealand)

IDSA serves to “preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting,” according to its website. It focuses on raising awareness about the impact of artificial lighting at night on the environment. Plants, animals, and people are impacted because light pollution disrupts  natural circadian rhythms. IDSA works with city planners and leaders to create dark-friendly ordinances. It also works with lighting manufacturers on how to implement smart lighting solutions, such as simple shields, that limit unnecessary light filtration into the night sky. They even provide data that questions whether illumination is related to reduction in crime.

The Milky Way from the Big Cypress National Preserve (Bortle Scale 3) [Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

The impact of light pollution is commonly overlooked, according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the international agency of the United Nations that promotes international collaboration and understanding through the preservation of and education about the tangible and intangible elements of human culture and natural heritage. UNESCO is a partner of IDSA and promotes the designation and certification of international dark sky reserves like Massacre Rim.

These designations are important because, as all the partner organizations underscore, light pollution goes unnoticed by people until an individual exits the urban environment. When people go camping or attend rural festivals, the lack of night sky comes into relief. In heavily light-polluted environments of cities, most individuals only typically notice the moon overhead – even bright stars are often obscured. Once away from the city’s light pollution, the sky becomes visible again.

Light pollution typically consists of four components: clutter, the excessive grouping of light sources; glare, the excessive brightness of light sources; trespass, the exposure of unnatural light sources outside their usage area; and urban sky glow/over-illumination, the unwarranted brightening of the skies over inhabited areas. Light pollution has become a ubiquitous experience of much of the human population.

Sky illumination is measured by the Bortle scale, a nine-level numerical scale originally published in 2001 by Sky and Telescope for amateur astronomers to evaluate the darkness of their sites. A scale score of nine represents inner-city observation at a location densely populated with artificial light sources creating air glow. Only the moon and just a handful of stellar objects, like the major planets and the Pleiades star cluster, are visible under these conditions. A scale score of five represents a darker suburban sky where much of the Zodiac is visible but clouds are bright because of ground illumination. A scale score of one represents an excellent dark sky; it is a rare category in modern times. In such a sky, the Milky Way is clearly visible, the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius cast shadows, and the rare glow of gegenschein, the bright spot of the anti-solar point, is visible.

IDSA notes that individuals can fight light pollution as well.  It provides resources not only for city planning but also for residential lighting. They recommend the following:

      • Don’t light an area if it’s not needed.
      • Turn off the lights when not in use.
      • To save energy, don’t use excessive amounts of illumination.
      • Use timers, dimmers and motions sensors whenever possible.
      • Use only “full cut-off” or “fully shielded” lighting fixtures. That means no light above the 90-degree angle. Fully shielded lighting can be purchased or retrofitted.
      • Use energy-efficient lighting sources and fixtures.
      • Only use lighting sources with correlated color temperature (CCT) no higher than of 3000K.

Visitors to Massacre Rim can take Route 8A heading east out of Centerville, California. As they cross the town of Vya, Nevada, switch to Nevada Route 34, a maintained gravel road that will reach the western edge of Massacre Rim. The elevation ranges from 5,500 feet (1,676 meters) to 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) and contains a vast escarpment with unobstructed views of the night. Interior areas of the wildlife study area are accessible by four-wheel drive with high clearance on rough dirt roads. The area is remote, and visitors should plan accordingly.

The Massacre Rim IDSA is designated as a dark sky sanctuary, but there are dark sky parks, dark sky communities, and dark reserves, all of which are still exceptional environments for viewing and connecting with the night all around the world that are less remote and more accessible.

Note: For those interested in exploring the issue of light pollution further, the International Dark Skies Association offers a short film that is available in multiple languages and no license fee.