Why New Zealand Is Filling The Sky With Stars Again

February 24th, 2023
Why New Zealand Is Filling The Sky With Stars Again

With a breathy hoot from the train’s whistle and a curious wave-like muffling of all background noise, we plunge into the tunnel - and find utter, profound blackness.

There’s no electricity powering this steam-train carriage, and right now, that means there’s no light. I lift a hand in front of me and wave it. Nothing. I can’t see anything. I bring my fingers closer, waggling them an inch from my eyes. Still nothing. I can’t believe how total this darkness is - at least to all our currently light-dazzled eyes. Perhaps if we had the best part of an hour, we’d see a lot more, as the colour-vision from the photoreceptors in the middle of our retinas gave way to the far more sensitive “rods” that let us see so much more (albeit in monochrome) in low light. 

But there just isn’t time today. This tunnel, one of two serving the steam railway of the North York Moors here in England, is only a little over a hundred metres long, and it’s only a few more seconds before we whoosh out the other side into the suddenly-overwhelming dazzle of sunshine. Back to the real world, I guess.

The steam railway of the North York Moors

The steam railway of the North York Moors

When was the last time you encountered profound darkness? You may have been indoors, or in that last natural bastion of darkness, deep underground. It probably wasn’t when you were outside at night - and sadly, every year, the chance of that happening to you is decreasing a little more. The title of this study in the journal Science says it all: “light pollution is skyrocketing.”

Using 50,000 observations of light levels in the night sky taken across the globe between 2011 and 2022, the paper’s authors concluded that on average, our nights are getting artificially brighter by 9.6% every year - meaning that over an 18-year period at that rate, they become four times brighter. (There are significant regional variations: Europe’s under that average, while the United States is well over it.)

There are all sorts of reasons this is concerning. So much of the natural world relies on illumination, like the bioluminescent algae in the Gulf of Thailand that Vanessa Moss wrote so gorgeously about last week. Sea turtles rely on the reflected light of the Moon to navigate after hatching - and artificial beach lights can confuse them. Bats and migrating birds can be led astray by the bright lights of cities, and frequently collide with glass building fronts and windows. 

And then there’s us. What about that special joy you feel when you look up on a dark night and see all the stars in their impossibly vast glory? That’s a visceral pleasure increasingly denied to the kids (and adults) of today. While light pollution now hides the Milky Way from around 30% of the population of the world, the rate in the United States is 80%. Only one in five Americans can see their own galaxy at night. As the lead author of the study puts it: 

“The rate at which stars are becoming invisible to people in urban environments is dramatic…. If the brightening of the night sky continues at the current rate, a child born in a place where 250 stars are visible will only be able to see 100 stars there on their 18th birthday.”

The sky full of stars in New Zealand

The sky full of stars in New Zealand

And of course, there are ecological concerns here. Light pollution is squandered energy, the kind we could be putting back into our electrical grids, instead of bleeding it into the air, mostly for no reason other than technical incompetence. LEDs are certainly making lighting more energy-efficient, so we’re wasting less of it as a result - but they’re also making it bluer, using light with wavelengths more towards the blue end of the visible spectrum, the kind that can disrupt the human body’s release of melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleep. It’s an environmental hazard that directly interrupts perhaps the most important 8 hours of our day in terms of our long-term health.

So - what can we collectively do about this?

If you’re joining us for our LiveAway trip to New Zealand this year or the next, you’ll get a glimpse of what’s possible. The whole country is working really hard to create some of the darkest skies in the modern world - and in doing so, become certified as a “dark sky nation” by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA), which would be quite the achievement for a whole country, let alone one of New Zealand’s size. (Most dark sky places are local-level, in the form of parks, reserves and urban environments.)

For many New Zealanders, this is a deeply personal issue. Speaking to National Geographic last year, astronomer Rangi Mātāmua of Massey University notes: Our language [te reo Māori] and different cultural practices and beliefs come out of our observations of the night sky,” - including adhering to rhythms of agriculture and hunting according to a lunar calendar:

“Looking at the sky and connecting to it sits at the heart of humanity. It’s one of the earliest activities every single culture on the planet did, and the night sky is intrinsically connected to who we are as humans,” Mātāmua says. “When we start to sever that bond, we change who we are as a people. We’re changing the way we understand our world and the things that are important to us. We need to try and put together better ways of using lights and caring for our night sky.”

New Zealand’s spectacular wildlife will also benefit from a reclamation of night-time darkness even extending to its insects. But a further benefit to its human population, and anyone visiting, is how it’ll help with getting a good night’s sleep. In the wake of the stress of the pandemic, worldwide reports of insomnia have increased dramatically - and perhaps alongside learning to travel again, we’re also going to have to relearn how to shut down ourselves at the end of the day.

Mount Cook in New Zealand

Mount Cook in New Zealand

New Zealand looks well-positioned for this task. In the words of Kaye Paardekooper, part-owner of Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat and quoted in this BBC Travel piece on New Zealand’s dark-sky initiative: “Without the dominance of blue light, it's much easier to return to your natural circadian rhythms. The kind of sleep you get here, particularly during the long nights of winter, honestly, is second to none."

So if you’d like your first day of a great trip to end with a dazzlingly starry sky and the kind of bottomless slumber that could tackle even the most severe jet-lag, New Zealand might just have everything you need.

Join Wheel & Anchor in New Zealand in two upcoming LiveAway programs for 2023 (here) and 2024 (here), featuring 2 weeks in each of the North and South Islands, getting to know about what life is like for our Kiwi friends in this far-flung nation, as well as witnessing some of its dramatic landscapes.

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