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Protecting Mayo’s Dark Sky

I’m sad to say that I have taken one of the great natural wonders of Mayo for granted – and until last week I didn’t realise that it is under threat.

I’ve stood under the clear dark skies of North Mayo all my life to gaze up at the star-filled celestial dome never fully realising how lucky I am compared to over half of Ireland’s people who cannot enjoy this natural wonder.

Here in Mayo, we are lucky to have the Mayo Dark Sky Park comprising Ballycroy National Park and the Wild Nephin Beg mountain range internationally recognised as a Dark Sky place for star-gazing.

In 2016, the park was awarded Gold Tier standard of International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association, modeled on conservation programmes, such as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves.

But unless we act soon to control light pollution the beauty of the Milky Way as it arcs across the heavens on a clear night will no longer be visible in many parts of Mayo.

It wasn’t until I attended the Protecting the Dark Sky Assets of Mayo event in the K Cinema, Westport, that it came home to me just how endangered our dark skies are from the spread of unnecessary and wasteful light pollution.

Skyglow

Already nearly half of Ireland’s population only sees a yellow haze when they look up at the heavens – only the western fringe of Ireland still holds onto its pristine night sky.

Light pollution is spreading all around us, but we are oblivious to it – for the most part, it doesn’t affect us and lighting up the dark even where it’s not necessary doesn’t bother us. But it is causing serious disruption to the life-cycles of animal and plant life whose evolution has been shaped by daylight and darkness.

What’s scary is that we are spending a lot of money and a lot of resources lighting up the night so it looks more like the day – Prof Brian Espey

We all notice skyglow – the pink or orange glow around towns and cities, spreading into rural areas.

And glare – the uncomfortable brightness of a light source, but we don’t realise the harm it is doing to ourselves as humans and the natural world.

The impact of light pollution not only affects our view of starlight from above but can interfere with our sleep patterns, circadian clock and melatonin production. Wildlife, trees, and insects are also affected by the interruption of our natural night and daylight cycles.

Of course, we need artificial lighting for businesses, homes, roads, and recreation. But using artificial lighting inappropriately or excessively can cause light pollution.

But neither can we ignore the latest scientific research which indicates that light has a significant influence on our health such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and the plants, animals, and insects, especially the nocturnal variety, are also affected by constant illumination.

Keynote Speaker

At the Protecting the Dark Sky Assets of Mayo held in the K Cinema, Westport, were (l/r): Georgia MacMillan, Mayo Dark Skies Community Group, Ged Dowling, Mayo Dark Skies Community Group, Brian Espey, Associate Professor in Astrophysics in the School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin, and Sue Callaghan, District Conservation Officer with National Parks and Wildlife and manager Ballycroy National Park. Photo: Anthony Hickey
At the Protecting the Dark Sky Assets of Mayo held in the K Cinema, Westport, were (l/r): Georgia MacMillan, Mayo Dark Skies Community Group, Ged Dowling, Mayo Dark Skies Community Group, Brian Espey, Associate Professor in Astrophysics in the School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin, and Sue Callaghan, District Conservation Officer with National Parks and Wildlife and manager Ballycroy National Park. Photo: Anthony Hickey

The good news is that light pollution is one of the easiest pollutants to address. The first step is to raise awareness of this growing issue and identify where lighting improvements or adjustments could be made to reduce its impact.

Protecting the Dark Sky Assets of Mayo was hosted by the Friends of Mayo Dark Skies and addressed the threat caused by light pollution to the Mayo Dark Sky Park and how we can protect this asset.

The main impact of new lighting is that you don’t see it. You shouldn’t see it. Why do you want to see where the lights are – you want to see what the light is supposed to be illuminating – Sue Callaghan, Ballycroy National Park

The keynote speaker was Brian Espey, Associate Professor in Astrophysics in the School of Physics, Trinity College Dublin and the leading expert on the light at night and light pollution issues in an Irish context.

Professor Espey’s talk was illustrated and backed up by latest satellite imagery and data showing the spread of light pollution in Ireland and throughout the world.

He talked about how we seem oblivious to the health and ecological damage that light pollution creates and we seem to take for granted the immense value of undisturbed darkness and clear skies.

The latest research and data shows there is the needless and wasteful use of lights that are on all the time when there is no need. Our energy resources are finite, but we are sending light out into space all the time.

“We’re led to believe that it needs to be as bright as twilight all the time or brighter but our eyes can accommodate a factor of a billion difference between full sight and deepest dark. It’s an immense ability that we have had and yet we ignore that.

“We ignore the fact that we can see shadows by starlight. You can read a book by moonlight. These are things we just aren’t aware of because we illuminate to such high levels.”

Tourism Potential

The Mayo Dark Sky Park Group has also launched a project mapping the naturally dark areas of Mayo that conversely shows the areas that are affected by artificial light at night. The grey areas are dark sky places. See link in the footnote at the end of this article to visit map website where there is much more detail. Image: Courtesy Mayo Dark Skies Group
The Mayo Dark Sky Park Group has also launched a project mapping the naturally dark areas of Mayo that conversely shows the areas that are affected by artificial light at night. The grey areas are dark sky places. See link in the footnote at the end of this article to visit map website where there is much more detail. Image: Courtesy Mayo Dark Skies Group

Professor Espey outlined the potential benefits to Mayo if we protect our dark sky assets.

“One of the great advantages Mayo has is that we are on the edge of Europe and we can use this downside of our peripheral state to our advantage.

“We can use what might be a downside to our positive advantage if we’re careful.

“So if you can mind the light in Mayo there is nothing getting in our way when we look out to sea – it’s limitless – there is nothing between us and New York.

“We have a fantastic sky picture so if we legislate locally to protect our environment it doesn’t matter what they are doing in the US because their light doesn’t get here. So we can take action locally but gain that panorama.

“There is an opportunity for Mayo in off-season tourism for those seeking to view the dark sky. The Citizen’s Science Project with Irish Times has found that roughly 80% respondents have said yes they would be interested in seeing a nighttime event.”

But he warned against complacency and the need to start making progress immediately in moving to more eco-friendly light sources.

“We have Mayo Dark Sky Park because there is no strong development, but right on the borders of our park we have got growing light centres as we have seen from maps they will insidiously spread and join up until you are ringed by light and that will affect the experience elsewhere so it needs to be done as a concerted effort to improve the night.

The Milky Way over Lacken with the old World War 11 lookout post in the foreground. Photo: Anthony Hickey
The Milky Way over Lacken with the old World War 11 lookout post in the foreground. Photo: Anthony Hickey

“Not surprisingly, our towns contribute most to light pollution and 85% of light is contributed by public and commercial lighting that is going straight out into space. The light emitted by a big town like Ballina also affects areas on the outskirts of the town that might not be emitting much light because light travels out sideways as well and influences its surroundings.”

Adding shields to street lights and floodlights and connecting passive infra-red sensor controls to lamps are all practical solutions – Duncan Stewart, architect and environmentalist

Research by Prof Espey and his team at TCD has found that there are 420,000 street lights across the country, accounting for 15%-35% of local authorities’ energy use — at an annual cost of €29m.

However, Prof Espey says as much as 20%-30% of this energy could be wasted through poorly designed or inefficient lighting and the illumination of areas where light is not needed.

Other speakers were Georgia MacMillan, Mayo Dark Skies Community Group; and Sue Callaghan, District Conservation Officer with National Parks and Wildlife, and manager at Ballycroy National Park.

It was an uplifting event in that it, on the one hand, it raised a red flag warning us of the threat to our pristine night skies, but on a positive note showed that simple changes can save our dark sky.

For example, only providing public street lighting and motorway lighting where it is necessary and lighting only the essential parts of the night.

Adding shields to street lights and floodlights and connecting passive infra-red sensor controls to lamps are all practical solutions, Duncan Stewart, architect and environmentalist, and supporter of Mayo Dark Sky Park pointed out in an audio message played at the event.

Ireland’s only other recognised dark sky region is the Kerry Dark Sky Reserve. However, it comprises privately held property which gives Mayo the distinct advantage when it comes to having a say in protecting this part of our natural heritage.

And already the communities of Newport, Mulranny, Ballycroy, and Bangor have all come together and recognised this dark sky asset and understand its value for not only controlling light pollution, but also a tourism and heritage asset for the country, Sue Callaghan, District Conservation Officer with National Parks and Wildlife, told the gathering.

Planetarium Plans

 It can be fun to photograph the night sky here in Mayo and later use software such as Stellarium or Starry Night Backyard to identify the stars. Starry Night Backyard is a desktop planetarium that seems to be no longer for sale; most likely unable to compete with free software such as Stellarium. I bought Starry Night Backyard way back in the early 1990s and it still works - 3 PCs later. This photo of the night sky over Mayo shows some of the most interesting stars and clusters in the Northern hemisphere, including M45 (Pleiades), Capella, the third-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere; Aldebaran, an orange giant star located about 65 light years from the Sun. And in the bottom left of the photo is a section of the Orion constellation with Betelgeuse and Bellatrix easy to identify. Photo: Anthony Hickey
It can be fun to photograph the night sky here in Mayo and later use software such as Stellarium or Starry Night Backyard to identify the stars. Starry Night Backyard is a desktop planetarium that seems to be no longer for sale; most likely unable to compete with free software such as Stellarium. I bought Starry Night Backyard way back in the early 1990s and it still works – 3 PCs later. This photo of the night sky over Mayo shows some of the most interesting stars and clusters in the Northern hemisphere, including M45 (Pleiades), Capella, the third-brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere; Aldebaran, an orange giant star located about 65 light years from the Sun. And in the bottom left of the photo is a section of the Orion constellation with Betelgeuse and Bellatrix easy to identify. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Ms. Callaghan, who also manages Ballycroy National Park, outlined the huge potential of the Mayo Dark Sky Park for the surrounding communities.

“We want to protect our dark skies for public health and enjoyment, we want to protect the natural world and also to promote eco and nature tourism and for the local communities to see it as a positive. This has really captured people’s imagination.”

She also had some exciting news that is certain to catch the imagination of not only amateur astronomers but schools and tourism interests throughout the region when she raised the possibility of a planetarium being created in Ballycroy National Park Visitor Centre.

“Hopefully, in next 5-10 years, we will be developing an observatory and a planetarium. We can be positive about this opportunity especially with Failte Ireland on board as well. All the infrastructure is there already with the National Park Visitor Centre; toilets, car parking. It’s a no-brainer as far as opening up Visitor Centre for the winter time and extending that tourism window.”

So dark sky park can gives us more than just looking at the stars such as eco-tourism and sustainability, bringing people to rural areas in off-season; in wintertime when we need the business – Georgia MacMillan

This exciting message for sustainable tourism interests was expanded on by Georgia MacMillan:

“So dark sky park can give us more than just looking at the stars such as eco-tourism and sustainability, bringing people to rural areas in the off-season – in wintertime when we need the business. Local people can get involved to promote what we have on our doorstep which very few people have elsewhere.

We’re lucky to have the Wild Atlantic Way working its way all around the coast of Mayo where there are some of the best sights for star-gazing. We have also got the international award which attracts attention.

Dark Sky Festival

Ms. MacMillan also referred to the success of eco-tourism projects in the UK centered around the night sky and how similar projects could be developed in Mayo Dark Sky Park where the Mayo Dark Sky Festival, already in its second year, is bringing an off-season tourism fillip to Ballycroy, Newport, and Mulranny.

The entire occasion was beautifully illuminated (forgive the pun!) by the magnificent Milky Way photos of astrophotographer, Brian Wilson of Glengad.

The impact of Mr. Wilson’s photography was eloquently summed up by Ms. MacMillan:

“The night sky photos of Brian Wilson of Glengad, taken at Ballycroy Visitor Centre, connecting the natural heritage of night sky with the built heritage. The recognisable signs in his photos connect what’s on our landscape with the night sky – and how it can fire our imagination through landscapes and nightscapes working together and inspire science, culture, art, philosophy, and poetry.”

Now is a golden opportunity for Mayo to lead the way in protecting the natural beauty and wonder of our dark sky that has been a companion to all who have inhabited this county since the first settlers came here over 5000 years ago.

It would be an enormous tragedy for future generations if we allowed our own complacency to rob of us our starry dark sky.

We cannot tell future generations that we were kept in the dark on this threat to one of our most precious natural wonders.

Footnote: The Mayo Dark Sky Park Group has also launched a project mapping the naturally dark areas of Mayo (see image above) that conversely shows the areas that are affected by artificial light at night.

It’s a wonderful resource for Mayo and particularly for those interested in amateur astronomy and astrophotography. The map can be found by clicking on this link.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.

One reply on “Protecting Mayo’s Dark Sky”

Pour hydrochloric acid in a stream and you would be charged with an environmental crime. But flood light a church, castle or other assorted stone masonry and nothing is done although most of the light is pouring into the night sky. They tell us not to leave our TVs, etc on standby to save the environment – yet how much power does that waste compared with floodlights….minuscule.

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