Light pollution lament
There appears to be an increase in the frequency of news about both the importance of a dark night sky, the cultural significance of the stars, and the relevance of astronomy to indigenous peoples. This is not news to amateur astronomers who regularly discuss where to find a dark sky site, how to improve outdoor lighting and regularly lament the carelessness with which our society throws light up into the sky. Amateur astronomer Ken Petersen established an organisation called the Sydney Outdoor Lighting Improvement Society (SOLIS) to address this very issue over a decade ago.
Since the first electric lights were introduced into Paris and other cities professional astronomers have been very concerned about this issue. Last year the Warrumbungle National Park, where Siding Spring Observatory is located, was awarded the first dark sky park in the Southern Hemisphere. This was a major achievement spearheaded by Professor Fred Watson, who is the Sydney based head of Lighting and Environment and was the previous Astronomer in charge at the Australian Astronomical Observatory based at Siding Spring.
In the UK stargazing is seen as important to tourism, heritage and culture. The National Trust (UK) recommends top spots to take binoculars and telescopes to see stars and other phenomenon. Only yesterday an announcement was made declaring Bodmin Moor near Cornwall UK as a new 'dark sky park'.
This week Sydney Observatory manager, Marnie Ogg, was quoted asking Sydney-siders to reduce light pollution so locals and tourists can see the stars better from Observatory Hill on every night of the year. Ms Ogg's remarks follow over a century of lobbying by Sydney Observatory for a dark environment around Observatory Hill. In 2004 Sydney Observatory held the first of three Festival of the Stars, and the city buildings, Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House, turned off their lights for two nights of the year. Then in 2007 Earth Hour brought one hour of darkness annually to the city. But clearly a focus on Observatory Hill is not nearly enough to encompass all those who want to see the stars for scientific and cultural reasons.
There have been numerous academic studies examining the relevance of the night sky for Aboriginal Peoples in Australia, and many more studies are currently being undertaken by Universities to examine how intrinsic observing the night sky is to both culture and society. Dr Duane Hamacher is a leader in this field. I have recently published an article in the CAMOC City Museums Review about the 'Power of darkness: the night as a cultural landscape'.
Sydney City Skywatchers regularly bring out telescopes and take part in astronomy events, such as the Astrofest held at the University of Sydney on 30 June 2017. At this event over 3,500 people looked to the night sky and viewed through telescopes, but the light pollution meant we could hardly see the fifth star of the Southern Cross by naked eye, and this prompted me the write this short article and think about what we can all do. The level of public interest in astronomy is very exciting, but to be successful in giving everyone the opportunity to see the stars light pollution reduction has to be tackled on several levels.
Locally we can all look at our outdoor lighting around the home and in our neighbourhoods. Some Councils, such as the City of Sydney, have outdoor lighting codes. Unfortunately this is not enough as you can see from Geoff Wyatt's photograph taken from Observatory Hill. There is no objection to careful artistic lighting, such as the beautiful images projected on the Opera House during Vivid Sydney, NAIDOC week and at other times, but searchlights, and uplighting of tall buildings are not art, nor are they necessary.