'Dark sky' policy aims to protect the heavens at night for future generations

This article was originally published on this site

Around the world, dark night skies filled with stars are increasingly being brightened by artificial light pollution.

But in a move welcomed by stargazers, the West Australian Government has signalled it plans to treat its night sky as an asset and protect it from excessive lighting.

The WA Planning Commission recently released a draft policy which is designed to help reduce light pollution, describing it as “an orange smog which obscures the night sky, as artificial and natural light reflect off moisture and dust particles in the sky”.

Australian farmers looking to the stars to help them better grow crops on planet EarthAustralian farmers looking to the stars to help them better grow crops on planet Earth
The WA Planning Commission’s draft policy aims to reduce light pollution.(Supplied: Michael Goh)

As part of the policy, five key principles would need to be addressed in new planning proposals, including developments and subdivisions:

  • Eliminating light spill. A lot of lighting points upwards, projecting light pollution towards the night sky
  • Avoiding over-lighting
  • Using energy-efficient bulbs
  • Ensuring lights are not directed towards reflective surfaces
  • Using warm white colours. While LED lights are more energy efficient, bright white LEDs have more blue light, which can affect wildlife, and a higher colour temperature.

Areas around identified astrotourism sites, including observatories, would be protected and adequate infrastructure for tourists provided.

A photographer waits by her tripod with the camera pointed to the sky beneath the Milky Way in front of sand dunes in the desertA photographer waits by her tripod with the camera pointed to the sky beneath the Milky Way in front of sand dunes in the desert
Stargazing operators say the draft policy recognises WA’s dark sky is an asset.(Supplied: Michael Goh)

The policy document said implementing dark sky principles was “generally cost-neutral” with many benefits, including:

  • Reduced energy consumption and lighting costs
  • Better astronomical observations
  • Protection of nocturnal flora and fauna

The stargazing tourism industry has hailed the move as important recognition that WA’s dark sky is an asset which must be protected.

Overseas tourists ‘on the edge of their seats’

The founder and chief executive of Astrotourism WA, Carol Redford, said the draft proposal was an “amazing start” which addressed two important causes of light pollution: artificial light spill and the colour temperature of lighting.

Carol Redford, left, stands with a remote in her hand as she moves a telescope next to a woman on her right.Carol Redford, left, stands with a remote in her hand as she moves a telescope next to a woman on her right.
Carol Redford says WA is ideal for viewing the Milky Way because Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world.(ABC News: Glyn Jones)

While regional WA was lucky to have a relatively dark night sky because of its isolation and sparsely populated towns, Ms Redford said a lot of its light pollution came from street lighting and mine sites.

But she hoped the policy would help to limit — or even reduce — light pollution to allow future generations to enjoy gazing at the stars, while supporting a fledgling astrotourism industry.

“It will take a long time to get the Milky Way back for Perth,” she said.

“Imagine if you could see the Milky Way above Perth again.”

One person who is lucky enough to regularly see the Milky Way is Perth photographer and astrotourism tour guide Michael Goh.

Michael Goh, left, is seen superimposed over an image with rocks in the background and the Milky Way starry night sky above.Michael Goh, left, is seen superimposed over an image with rocks in the background and the Milky Way starry night sky above.
Photographer Michael Goh says international tourists are ‘waiting to get in’.(Supplied: Michael Goh)

While the Milky Way can’t be clearly seen from Perth with the naked eye, Mr Goh said photographers had captured it with the help of their powerful lenses.

But sites outside the metropolitan area — such as the Pinnacles and Exmouth, where in 2023 a rare hybrid solar eclipse will be able to be viewed — are in hot demand by stargazers.

Mr Goh said demand for his astrophotography tours had “just grown and grown” in recent years, including from keen international stargazers ready to visit as soon as Australia’s borders reopen.

The WA Government policy is the latest official move to address light pollution in Australia, with several other states — including New South Wales and Queensland — choosing to tackle the issue in different ways.

Last year, the Australian government released guidelines for managing the impact of artificial light on wildlife, noting the use of artificial light at night was increasing by about two per cent a year around the world.

“[Hatchling] marine turtles may not be able to find the ocean when beaches are lit, and fledgling seabirds may not take their first flight if their nesting habitat never becomes dark,” the guidelines said.

“Tammar wallabies exposed to artificial light have been shown to delay reproduction and clownfish eggs incubated under constant light do not hatch.”

A night sky filled with stars, with a large glow rising above the landscape below.A night sky filled with stars, with a large glow rising above the landscape below.
Lights from industry, such as mine sites, can affect views of the night sky.(Supplied: Astrotourism WA)

Marnie Ogg, founder of the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance, is pleased that governments are beginning to realise the benefits of addressing light pollution.

“One of the benefits with Western Australia doing it this way is that it’s actually bringing in the community,” she said.

“Giving people opportunities with it rather than just giving people guidelines and saying you must abide by these rules.”

Local councils to take up mantle

WA’s local governments will likely be the best observers of the implications and impacts of a dark sky planning policy, if and when final guidelines are released.

This will include people like Nils Hay, the chief executive of Mingenew Shire, which is almost 400km north of Perth and home to 460 people, as well as being a magnet for wildflower enthusiasts for several months a year.

Like many people in WA’s Wheatbelt towns, with small populations and little light pollution, Mr Hay is keen to capitalise on the potential of astrotourism for the local economy.

“Tourists can look at wildflowers in the day and stargaze at night,” he said.

But while he welcomed the policy’s focus on astrotourism, he flagged potential concerns about how local governments would be able to monitor and enforce lighting conditions.

Mr Hay said the best way to reduce light pollution in his shire would be for Western Power — the state-owned entity which manages one section of WA’s energy network — to change its street lighting and use low-temperature LEDs.