Some of the best star gazing can be had in national parks. Proof of that can be found at Natural Bridges National Monument, Yellowstone National Park, Big Bend National Park, even Acadia National Park. Those and other park settings are celebrated in a series of night sky posters issued in conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy.
The posters were created by Dr. Tyler Nordgren, an astronomer and associate professor of physics at the University of Redlands in California. While on sabbatical from August 2007 to August 2008 the professor traveled throughout the National Park System to explore links between astronomy and the parks.
The posters, reminiscent in style to the Works Progress Administration posters that promoted the national parks back in the 1930s and 1940s, will be complemented by a book by Dr. Nordgren that is scheduled to be published in February. Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Park will help guide park visitors to better understand and appreciate the starry night skis overhead.
"The purpose of the book is to help park visitors explore the world of astronomy that is visible when they are in the parks. This experience begins with seeing a dark night sky overhead that has far more stars than most visitors have ever seen before," Dr. Nordgren told the Traveler. "But astronomy also includes an understanding of the landscape that is often a founding reason for the park; many of the geysers, glaciers, and canyon walls we enjoy by day are examples of features and processes on other planets. To visit a park is to literally walk into an alien landscape and stand under a sky that has become just as alien.
"And an appreciation and understanding of astronomy isn’t new, there have been astronomers in the parks for centuries in the form of people who lived here long before Europeans arrived," he adds. "The book introduces all of these concepts to the reader with each chapter featuring a different park and a different astronomical phenomenon. For each one, the reader is presented with what they can see for themselves, and how this fits into our broader understanding of the universe around us. Chapters include full color photos of the constellations, night sky, geological features, and star charts for each park."
While Acadia might seem an unlikely park to have dark night skies, Dr. Nordgren says they are dark enough to spot the Milky Way.
"In Grand Canyon you can see the lights of Page, Tuba City, St. George and Las Vegas," he said in pointing out that even the Grand Canyon has light pollution. "But even though the skies in Acadia aren’t quite as dark as those out west, you can still stand in the middle of Acadia (only a 10-minute drive from Bar Harbor) and see the Milky Way extend nearly horizon to horizon. That is such a rarity on the East Coast that they are trying hard to convince local businesses that they can market this, and thus should take steps to protect it."
Parks have been getting quite a bit of attention in recent years for their dark skies. Astronomy festivals have been held across the system, from Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon to Yosemite and Acadia. Natural Bridges also was designated the world's first ever International Dark-Sky Park, as designated by the International Dark-Sky Association.
The National Park Service has been hard at work in recent years noting the wonderful night skies that can be found throughout the park system, and working to protect them.
Natural night skies have become rare and are threatened by light pollution— the cumulative glow of poorly designed outdoor lighting. By some estimates, truly dark night skies in the 48 states may be lost by 2025. Even remote national parks often show substantial alteration of the nighttime scenery. As the public loses the experience of a dark sky in their backyards, they are increasingly seeking it out in their national parks. In dozens of parks, stargazing events are the most popular ranger-led activity. The National Park Service (NPS) Night Sky Program was started by park field scientists in 1999 who initially set out to develop instrumentation and methods to quantify night sky quality. The program now serves parks nationwide and has been adopted by the Natural Resource Program Center. It has become recognized as a leader in the field worldwide, setting the standard for sky measurement, often sought by the media regarding light pollution issues, and working closely with parks to preserve the last of our nation’s starry skies.
The Night Sky Program now works on several levels to protect natural lightscapes— the visual quality of a parks nighttime landscape that is dependent on natural light sources and darkness. This is accomplished by developing methods for measuring night sky quality, facilitating the science of lightscape management, reporting on existing conditions, encouraging the enjoyment and public understanding of the night, safeguarding nocturnal habitat, restoring starry skies through lighting retrofits, collaborating with gateway communities, and leading the agency and nation in lightscape
For more information on the NPS night skies program, see the attached pdf.