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Embracing the Night: The importance of dark skies and the rise of astrotourism

Weylin Ryan

Have you ever looked up at the night sky in a place far from city lights and marveled at the sheer number of stars? Dark skies, unpolluted by artificial light, offer a breathtaking and natural spectacle that many of us, especially those living in urban areas, rarely see. But did you know, these dark skies are more than just a beautiful sight? They’re crucial for our environment, health and cultural heritage. With it being autumn, one of the best seasons to stargaze, let us discuss the importance of dark skies.

Artificial light pollution disrupts the natural rhythms of humans and various wildlife species. For humans, excessive exposure to artificial light at night can interrupt our circadian rhythm, leading to issues like insomnia. It also has safety and comfort ramifications. As we age, our eyes cannot adjust to light changes as fast, making it harder and more uncomfortable to be out after dark when exposed to cycles of light and no light. Additionally, contrary to popular belief, more artificial or brighter lighting does not decrease crime rates. Light allows criminals to choose their victims, locate escape routes and see their surroundings. In wildlife, artificial light can disrupt feeding patterns and navigation for nocturnal animals and migrating birds.

Starry skies have guided sailors, inspired poets and led to breakthrough scientific discoveries. Astroarchaeology, an intriguing blend of astronomy and archaeology, delves into humanity’s historical relationship with the cosmos. It offers insights into cultures like the Ancestral Puebloans, the Indigenous peoples of the Southwest United States. Highly attuned to their environment, the Puebloans wove astronomy into the very fabric of their culture. Their ancestral settlements show incredible astronomical alignment, indicating a sophisticated understanding of celestial cycles. The Great House at Chimney Rock aligns with the Northern Major Lunar Standstill. By understanding our past, astroarchaeology helps us appreciate the importance of dark skies, making the case for their preservation even stronger. Preserving our dark skies is akin to protecting a part of our collective human heritage.

Astrotourism is also gaining momentum, with people flocking to Dark Sky parks and reserves to escape light pollution and reconnect with nature. In this context, noting the recent developments in Durango is exciting. The city is taking significant strides toward becoming a Dark Sky-certified community. Visit Durango kicked off the certification process and has started working on a program to loan sky-quality meters to help the public record our light pollution while providing residents with something fun and educational to do after dark. The Durango Public Library is working with Fort Lewis College to get a telescope rental program started. The city is currently working on updating and simplifying lighting codes. It enhances the beauty of Durango’s nocturnal landscape, offering residents and visitors a chance to marvel at the majesty of the cosmos. As Durango moves toward Dark Sky certification, it sets a valuable precedent for other communities worldwide to follow, reminding us of the importance of preserving our starlit skies.

So, let’s switch off unnecessary lights and gaze up at the stars. After all, it’s not only about saving energy – it’s about reviving our connection with the universe, preserving our wildlife and promoting sustainable tourism. Indeed, the importance of dark skies is as vast and profound as the cosmos.

Weylin Ryan is sustainability and policy manager at Visit Durango.