Lights out: Tiny sark named first dark sky island

February 1, 2011

Joe Palca

The International Dark-sky Association has named the English Channel Island of Sark its first dark sky island.

There are billions and billions of stars in the sky, but most people in the developed world can only see a handful of them. The reason for that is light pollution. Street lamps, illuminated signs, flood-lit monuments all send light into the atmosphere, obscuring the much fainter stars.

Some light at night is necessary for safety and possibly aesthetic purposes, but the International Dark-sky Association has been trying to get manufacturers to make, and people to buy, lights that shine exclusively down, or at least don't leak any unnecessary light up into the sky. Street lights, pedestrian lights, security lights, even floodlights at sporting events have been designed that produce far less light pollution.

Light pollution is particularly bad in the United States and Europe. According to the National Park Service, two-thirds of Americans cannot see the Milky Way. And 99 percent of the U.S. population lives in an area that scientists consider light polluted.

But there is a movement afoot to establish and protect "natural lightscapes:" places unspoiled by light pollution. Flagstaff, Ariz., was the first major community to be certified as a dark sky in 2001. The night sky in Flagstaff is filled with stars visible to the naked eye. It's also a treasure trove for astronomers looking for clues to the contours of the universe — astronomers there discovered Pluto in 1930.

Borrego Springs, Calif., is another community that's taken big steps to reduce light pollution and protect the night sky. It's also gotten kudos from the International Dark-sky Association for its efforts. In the U.S., about 300 counties, cities and towns in the nation have passed dark-sky legislation, according to the IDA.

Now Sark joins the list of dark sky places. Sark, in case you are not familiar with it, is one of the four main Channel Islands, about 80 miles off the coast of England. The island only has about 600 residents, and no cities, which helps keep light pollution down. According to the BBC, the island has no public street lighting. There are also no cars allowed on the island.

Still, Sark does get tens of thousands of tourists each year, and if you decide to go there, it's nice to know that you can see the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. With its new distinction, astro-tourism may be an even bigger draw for visitors. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.