New Zealand Aims to Become World's Largest 'Dark Sky Nation'

The ambitious conservation effort to slash light pollution is expected to take three years.

starry sky over New Zealand

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Already beloved and admired for its gorgeous landscapes and stunning night skies, New Zealand is taking additional steps to preserve its dark sky heritage. An unprecedented effort, led by Indigenous Māori people, is presently underway to certify the country as a "dark sky nation." If successful, it would make the country only the second in the world and by far the largest to receive the designation from the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA ).

"Looking at the sky and connecting to it sits at the heart of humanity. It's one of the earliest activities every single culture on the planet did, and the night sky is intrinsically connected to who we are as humans," Rangi Mātāmua, an astronomer and professor of Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) at Massey University, told National Geographic. "When we start to sever that bond, we change who we are as a people. We're changing the way we understand our world and the things that are important to us. We need to try and put together better ways of using lights and caring for our night sky."

A Fading Natural Wonder

Finding night skies that appear much the same way as before the advent of outdoor lighting has become an increasingly difficult proposition. According to a 2016 study, nearly 80% of the globe lives under the glow of artificial lights, with a full one-third of the human population unable to see the Milky Way. Estimates of annual growth in global light pollution paint a worrisome picture, with at least one outcome showing a doubling of 2012 levels by 2050.

"There's a statistic that I quote, which is that eight of every ten kids born in the United States today will never experience a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way," Paul Bogard, author of the book "The End of Night," told Venue.

But it's not just the beauty of what's above us that's being impacted. Light pollution has been shown to interfere with the natural rhythms of plants, animals, and even human sleep patterns.

"There is no question that we are changing our physiology," Richard Stevens, a professor at the University of Connecticut, told Fast Company. "Too much electric lighting is bad for our well-being. It's not optimal to our health."

Preserving What's Left of True Darkness

Milky Way over Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

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New Zealand's new push to reduce interference from artificial light comes amidst a broader effort by organizations, like the International Dark-Sky Association, to protect what little untouched darkness remains. Since 1988, the IDSA has designated 195 dark sky places around the world, which include categories ranging from communities to parks and reserves, with each recognized for successfully implementing measures to reduce light pollution and protect their natural night sky heritage.

Some notable examples of dark sky reserves include the Mont-Mégantic International Dark Sky Reserve in Quebec, Canada, the Exmoor Dark Sky Reserve in the United Kingdom, and the nearly 1,700-square-mile Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand.

These dark sky places serve as important havens for astronomical research and stargazing, as well as promoting the appreciation of the night sky and its cultural and environmental value. As urbanism expands and light pollution degrades more of the night sky, they've also become beacons for the increasingly popular dark sky tourism scene.

"Traveling for dark sky experiences is probably among the newest 'type' of astrotourism," Valerie Stimac, author of the book "Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism," told Treehugger in 2019. "The International Dark-Sky Association has done a great job of generating excitement and interest in these locations—and showing how astrotourism is often a great complementary activity for travel to spots that are also great natural destinations during the day."

An Exclusive Club, a Nationwide Effort

nighttime view of Queenstown, New Zealand

Lingxiao Xie / Getty Images

Despite relatively low levels of light pollution, with 74% of the North Island and 93% of the South Island enjoying night skies that were either pristine or degraded only near the horizon, New Zealand will still need at least a three-year campaign to apply for dark nation status. The present plan for achieving that goal includes raising awareness, changing and implementing local light ordinances, and expanding protected areas, among other efforts. As it stands presently, an estimated 56% of its population (residing mainly in urban environments) cannot view the Milky Way.

"The night sky is essential to the balance of [New Zealand's] ecosystems," Olive Karena-Lockyer, an astronomy educator at Stardome Observatory in Auckland and member of of the Te Aupōuri and Ngāti Raukawa tribes, told NatGeo. "It's connected to every aspect of the environment. As the night sky changes throughout the year, it becomes an indicator of different natural processes like the blooming of flowers."

If successful, New Zealand will join an exclusive club that includes only one other recognized "dark sky country," the tiny island nation of Niue in the South Pacific. In 2020, the 100-square-mile island was recognized by the IDSA as the world's first-ever dark sky nation for its commitment to keeping light pollution to a minimum.

"The stars and night sky have a huge significance to the Niuean way of life, from a cultural, environmental, and health perspective," former Tourism Niue chief executive Felicity Bollen told Newshub. "Being a dark sky nation will help protect Niue's night skies for future generations of Niueans and visitors to the country."

Whether New Zealand earns a similar distinction by 2025 is anyone's guess, but it's heartening to see the nation taking real steps to preserve a natural wonder increasingly under threat worldwide. Its success, and that of others it inspires to take similar steps, offers critical safeguards for ensuring future generations have access to the same untamed beauty of the cosmos in all of its original wonder.

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