In Search of Clear, Night Skies: On Preserving Earth’s Darkest Places
Johan Eklöf Sheds Some Light on the Rise of Astrotourism
In our chaotic times, tourists are looking far and wide to find quiet areas, remote places under open skies, and pristine forests. The wilder, the better, although it’s nice to also be comfortable. Around the world people are putting together these kinds of experiences in the dark: in Britain, southern Europe, in national parks in the United States, in northern Scandinavia, and along the Pacific slopes of the Andes. Astrotourism, that is, tourism linked to stargazing and the night sky, is on the rise.
One such example is the Kachi Lodge, in Bolivia. At an altitude of twelve thousand feet, an hour’s flight from the city of La Paz, tourists are offered ancient celestial spectacles. Cottages shaped like futuristic globes, the way you might imagine a settlement on Mars, are located in the middle of Uyuni, the world’s largest salt desert.
Inside the white space-base-like domes, guests sleep as close to the cosmos as one can ever get to on earth, with an unobstructed view of the starry sky. The resort’s restaurant, which is listed in the Michelin Guide, serves gourmet domestic dishes, and the barren cactus landscape all around offers the same experience of nature that once gave inspiration to the stories of the Inca people.
When Christopher Columbus sailed west in 1492, paving the way for the European invasion of Latin America, Spain’s highest mountain, on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, fired off a salute. “Teide erupted,” Columbus noted in his diary. Columbus devoted only those words to the earth’s third-largest volcano. Today Teide has been quiet for more than a hundred years and this volcanic area has become both a World Heritage Site and a national park.
If you take the cable car up alongside the mountain, you’ll travel out into the universe a bit, and the experience of the Milky Way here is more intense than what most people on earth ever approach. As early as the 1960s, space observatories were opened on the volcano, and keeping pace with the light spreading from the dense stretches of hotels on the Canary Islands beaches, more and more tourists are looking up to the darkness in search for real night. Astrotourism has become a billion-dollar industry.
In the Nordic region, we can attract people with the spectacles of the midwinter night. Northern lights and stars in sparkling bands. Tourists seek their way to Iceland, northern Norway, or northern Sweden’s Jukkasjärvi’s ice hotel to see the sky’s own fireworks and have experiences beyond the usual charter fare. In the middle of Lapland’s mountain world is one of Europe’s oldest national parks, Abisko. Here, too, you find a growing stream of darkness and northern-lights tourists. Visitors are guided through the night of the national park with only a dim red light, so as not to disturb their night vision. After a nocturnal ascension in a cable car, you reach the Aurora Sky Station, where the polar night seems to never end.
But even more everyday experiences are shielded from artificial light in some places. In the city of Helsingborg in southern Sweden, to preserve the beautiful sea views even in the evening, lamps on the promenades are adapted so that the view to the west is free from scattered light. A bit farther south in Lomma, it’s written into the city’s master plan that dark places have to be preserved.
On Møn—a Danish island southeast of the country’s primary island of Zealand—best known for its spectacular cliffs, nighttime visits have become increasingly popular. The island’s 460-foot-high white cliffs are impressively eye-catching in the distance and appear as though they’re plunging down into the contrasting waters of the Sound, emerald green at the edges where mountains meet sea. But aside from its white cliffs, Møn is also known for its darkness. On a clear night five thousand stars can be counted over the island’s cliffs, which puts Møn high on the Bortle scale, the yardstick for astronomical beauty.
The corresponding number of stars in Copenhagen, just over an hour’s drive away, is one hundred. So, the entire eastern part of Møn and parts of the small neighboring island of Nyord, too, have been made into a reserve—Scandinavia’s first dark park, a nature area that since 2017 has been completely devoted to the unspoiled night. As if that weren’t enough, Vordingborg Municipality, under whose jurisdiction the two islands fall, is also designated a Dark Sky Community. This means that the municipality undertakes to safeguard the night and that a strict lighting plan regulates how, where, and when there are to be lights. Only the absolutely most essential light is allowed.
Møn could have been Swedish land after the Treaty of Roskilde, after Charles X Gustav completed his legendary march over the Danish Belt and forced his hereditary enemy to capitulate in 1658. The Swedes’ demands were high, but through the negotiations, the Danes got to keep the islands of Läsö, Anholt, and Møn. It’s said this was because the Danish negotiators had placed beer glasses on the map so that the islands weren’t visible. Maybe it was lucky for today’s darkness enthusiasts because the Danish Environmental Protection Agency is a little more advanced than the Swedish equivalent in its view of light and darkness.
Even more at the forefront is France, which passed legislation in 2019 over how much light can be emitted into the atmosphere. In 2021 the law was fully implemented and regulates everything from brightness and color temperature to time of day and the coverings of street lighting. It remains to be seen how this will be implemented in practice and what the effects will be. But more and more countries are undertaking similar initiatives.
In the Austrian capital of Vienna, they’ve started turning out the lights at 11:00 p.m., and in Groningen in the Netherlands industry and agriculture lights are regulated by law. Western Europe seems to have woken up in this regard, while the rest of the world is still at the starting block about the threat of light pollutants.
Møn and Nyord’s status as Dark Sky Communities make them a part of an international movement. Every year, dark parks, special reserves, and municipalities are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Only places with extraordinary night skies are even eligible. The areas also need to be reasonably accessible and can be visited by tourists as well as researchers and amateur astronomers. A dark park is intended to be a cultural center in line with medieval cathedrals and ancient wonders. Unfortunately, few places are left that meet IDA’s requirements. There are today about forty dark parks and about half as many dark communities worldwide. Only five of them are to be found in Europe, which is why Møn is such a unique place.
The darkness park on Møn, with its stars and the living nocturnal experiences, has attracted worldwide attention. During a visit to the park, you can join one of the many guided tours. On an overcast evening, the experience lies in the darkness itself, in the dense nothingness and its slowly emerging shades as your eyes get used to it.
The guide presents how to best achieve a sense of security in the dark, how the untrained parts of your sensory apparatus can be activated, and how your body assimilates positively to the visual respite. If the sky is clear, the focus is on the stars. The Milky Way, with its sparkling pearls, runs the breadth of the heavens, and for those who visit the island in winter, a crackling fireworks of light from the beginning of time awaits them.
The world’s darkness parks give hope. There’s something uplifting in that, despite everything, parts of the night sky can be preserved in today’s world of technology and illumination—if only we have the will. In Great Britain, several darkness parks hold festivals during the spring, winter, and around Halloween, which attract all kinds of people from all across the island kingdom.
The first city to receive Dark Sky City status was Flagstaff in Arizona, in 2001 The city had even then long been a pioneer in this area, when as early as 1958) it introduced the world’s first lighting regulation, banning advertising spotlights. Astronomers were the driving force, but the city of Flagstaff developed its own ambition to be able to see the preserved night sky in an urban environment. A model was created limiting lighting on the basis of three criteria, similar to those in France’s recently established light-pollution laws.
First, all the lights face downward and are shielded by screens on top, with no light above the horizontal plane allowed. Second, the number of lights in any given area is limited, and third, light from the lamps must be warm, that is to say, the glow is yellow and red, as opposed to the cold bluish-white light that affects us the most. Flagstaff wants to be a role model and inspire everyone else to follow. If there aren’t more places such as Flagstaff, France, Møn, and Nyord, we risk losing the night within a generation.
Excerpted from The Darkness Manifesto: On Light Pollution, Night Ecology, and the Ancient Rhythms That Sustain Life by Johan Eklöf. Copyright © 2020 by Johan Eklöf and Natur & Kultur. English language translation copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth DeNoma. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.