Tuesday, June 25, 2019

America's Dark Sky Parks

Here is a story we recently wrote for the Live Science website - https://www.livescience.com/    Great places for a Summer 2019 Roadtrip!  Hope you enjoy it here too!

Credit:  NPS
1.    "The treasures hidden in the heavens are so rich that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment” wrote 17th-century Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer, mathematician and astrologer best known for his laws of planetary motion.  For Kepler and all people of the 17th-century seeing nightly the magnificence of the star filled nighttime sky was ordinary.  But current estimates suggest that the Milky Way is no longer visible to one-third of modern humanity because of light pollution.  That number becomes even more alarming when that one-third expands to 60% of Europeans and 80% of Americans no longer nightly see the Milky Way.  Shown above, the Milky Way spans the chasm of the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona.

"Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.”
-- Theodore Roosevelt


Credit:  NPS
2.  But a non-profit group known as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has been working since 1988 “to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.”  They have worked as advocates to protect the night sky, to educate the public and policymaker about nighttime conservation, promote environmentally responsible outdoor lighting and empower the public to help bring back the night sky.  By May 2019 IDS had declared 115 communities, parks, reserves and sanctuaries around the world with their International Dark Sky designation.  Not only does light pollution limit human enjoyment of the night sky but research has shown an ecological affect such as affecting the activity of phytoplankton and the egg laying cycle of sea turtles.  Shown above, the silhouette of an ancient pueblo at Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona highlights the splendor of a natural, dark sky.

"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."
-- Les Brown (author)

Credit:  NASA
3.  The places in the United States where the darkest skies are still found are located on the Colorado Plateau, the 240,000 square miles (386,242 km) region of the American Southwest that straddles the Four Corners area of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.   Home to 28 national parks, national monuments and national recreation areas, the dark skies of the Colorado Plateau are as pristine as any found across America.  Eight of America’s national parks located on the Colorado Plateau now hold IDA Dark Sky status.     

"I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night."
-- Sarah Williams (1837-1868)

Credit:  Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher
4.  Sunset Crater National Monument is found on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau near today’s Flagstaff, AZ.  The cinder cone is just one vent of the San Francisco volcanic field, a region that encompasses some 2,000 square miles (5,180 square km) and contains over 600 extinct volcanoes.  The cinder cone gets its name from the reddish-brown patches of oxidized iron and sulphur found on its slopes and near the summit.  The Bonita Lava Flow is found within the national monument and is one of the largest lava flows in the region.  It is a basaltic Aa flow and varies in thickness from 5 feet (1.5 m)  to over 100 feet (30 m) and has created many lava tubes and lava ravines.   

"Two things inspire me to awe -- the starry heavens above and the moral universe within."
-- Albert Einstein

Credit:  NPS
5.  The night sky above Sunset Crater National Monument, shown above, is one of three International Dark Sky Parks in the Flagstaff area; Wupatki and Walnut Canyon National Monuments being the other two.  Flagstaff was the first city in the world to enact outdoor lighting restrictions in 1958 in an attempt to protect the dark night sky for Lowell Observatory which is located within the city limits.  In 2001 Flagstaff, Arizona was the first location in the world to receive the International Dark Sky designation by IDA. 

"Be humble for you are made of earth.
Be noble for you are made of stars."
-- Serbian proverb

 Credit:  NPS
6. Chaco Culture National Historical Park is found in northwestern New Mexico at the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The pueblo ruins found at Chaco are the largest, best preserved and architecturally advanced ruins of all the ancient villages of the American Southwest.  The Chacoan villages were interlinked by a vast network of roads that extended for more than 100 miles.  Ten major pueblo ruins are found in Chaco Canyon and at its zenith in the ninth century, a population of 4,000 individuals lived across northern New Mexico.   The ancient Chacoans were renowned for their early astronomical petroglyph designs as well as aligning many of their pueblos with the solstice and/or equinox celestial points.  Located in such a remote part of New Mexico, the night sky above Chaco has long been considered by many to be the best place in America to view the night sky.  On August 13, 2013 Chaco Culture National Historic Park was designated an official Dark Sky Park by IDA.   

"Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another."
-- Plato (427-347 B.C.)

Credit:  NPS
7.  Canyonlands National Park is located in southeastern Utah and near the center of the Colorado Plateau.  Canyonlands is one of the “Mighty Five”, the five awe-inspiring national parks of Utah along with Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef and Arches.  Best known for its colorful landscapes of canyons, mesas and buttes, the magnificent geological formations found here were created by the Colorado and Green Rivers and their many tributaries.  On August 15, 2015 Canyonlands National Park was granted Gold-Tier International Dark Sky status, an honor bestowed only on such locations that have “the darkest of skies and the most stunning of starscapes.”  

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.   And the pismire is equally perfect,..."
-- Walt Whitman

Credit:  NPS
8.  The breathtaking nighttime views of the sky above Natural Bridges National Monument are said to be of some of the darkest skies in North America.  Located on the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah, Natural Bridges National Monument is a testament to the power of flowing water.  The three huge natural bridges found here all have Hopi names - Owachomo meaning “rock mounts” and shown above,”  Sipapu meaning “place of emergence” and Kachina meaning “dancer.”   Here at Natural Bridge National Monument visitor to the night can see upwards to 15,000 stars compared to less that 500 stars seen in urban settings.  So spectacular is the nighttime sky above Natural Bridge National Monument that it hold the distinction of being the first IDA designated dark sky park  in the world when so designated on March 6, 2007.  Stargazers from around the world have been flocking the Natural Bridge National Monument ever since.  

"The sky is the ultimate art gallery just above us."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

Credit:  NPS
9.  Other North American locations, not located on the Colorado Plateau, are also know for their dark, nighttime skies.  Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is located in central Idaho in the Snake River Plain.  Its out-of-this-world landscape and dark skies are both spectacular.  The landscape was formed during eight major volcanic eruptions some 15,000 and 2,000 years ago.  Hot lava flowed from the Great Rift, a series of deep crevices and freely flowed to the southeast for a distance of over 52 miles (84 km).  Over the years a lava field that cover 618 square miles (1,600 square km) was laid down.  Craters of the Moon was designated a national monument in 1924 and is known to preserve one of the best flood basalt areas in North America.  

"Ye stars! Which are the poetry of heaven!"
-- Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Credit:  NPS
10.  But the spectacular natural wonders of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve do not end at sunset.  The nighttime sky found here is stunning.  Park rangers have stated that "The Milky Way stretching across the park's incredibly dark night sky is a sight many visitors will never forget.”  The rugged wilderness of Central Idaho and forbidding environmental conditions of the Snake River Plain have and should continue to limited settlement for years to come.  Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve was designated a Dark Sky Park on September 5, 2017. 

"No one regards what is before his feet; we all gaze at the stars."
-- Quintus Ennius (239-169 B.C.)

Credit:  NPS
11.  Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park is often  referred to as Colorado’s Grand Canyon.  The swift flowing Gunnison River drops at an average of 43 feet per mile as it rushes through the towering cliffs of Black Canyon.  This drop in river elevation is six times greater than the Colorado River drop as it flows through the Grand Canyon.  Massive granite walls rise upward of 2, 700 feet (823 m) above the river and span just 40 feet (12 m) at the canyon’s narrowest point.  Many parts of this narrow gorge receive only 33 minutes of sunlight each day.  Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park received it official Dark Sky designation on September 8, 2015.  The picture above showns the Gunnison River flowing through Black Canyon with the Milky Way and a massive display of stars shining above.

"Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of the heaven, blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels."
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline, 1847

Credit:  NPS
12.  Joshua Tree National Park is located in the Mohave Desert and received its silver-tier Dark Sky designation on July 29, 2017.  Joshua Tree now becomes the 10th Dark Sky Park in the U.S. National Park system.  What makes Joshua Tree’s designation so unique is the fact it is located only 140 miles from the massive Los Angeles basin where the Milky Way and nighttime stars were washed out of the night sky long ago by the cities massive expanse of lights.  The park’s western edge has poor nighttime darkness due to the nearby Coachella Valley cities, but the eastern edge’s nighttime sky remains spectacular and pristine.      

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day."
-- Vincent Van Gogh

Credit:  fs.usda.gov
13.  Not all the magnificent places to marvel at the stars are found in the national parks or upon the Colorado Plateau.  But most dark sky places are found in the American West.  Shown above are the Maroon Bells, two 14,000+ foot (4,267 m) peaks composed of metamorphic sedimentary mudstone located just 12 miles (19 km) southwest of Aspen, CO in the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness of White River National Forest.  In 2017 over 320,000 wilderness enthusiasts came to hike, camp and photograph for themselves the natural beauty of the Maroon Bells.  

"Come quickly, I am tasting stars!"
-- Dom Perignon (1638 - 1715), at the moment of his discovery of champagne

Credit:  NPS
14.  And for those wise enough to spend the night camping at Maroon Bells, their view of the Milky Way and surround night sky, shown above, is - well, just undescribable.  Dr. Carl Sagan most assuredly, would describe the view above Maroon Bells and all the International Dark Sky Parks as being from the “shore of the Cosmic ocean.”  He concluded Episode 1 of his epic series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage”, by stating that “ Some part of our being knows this (the Cosmos) is where we came from. We long to return, and we can because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”  Luckily the Dark Sky Parks of America still gives us all an opportunity to know the Cosmos and ourselves.

"The stars are the jewels of the night and perchance surpass anything which day has to show."
-- Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)


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