In the spring of 2021, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park in northwestern Montana and southern Alberta, became the first “International Dark Sky Park,” the only dark-sky designation in the world, from the International Dark-Sky Association for a park sharing international boundaries.
Anyone who has visited Waterton-Glacier knows of the breathtaking scenery, bountiful wildflowers, and abundant wildlife. But the night sky is equally remarkable.
“They’re the first one ever to receive this designation,” says Mark Paulson of the Big Sky Astronomy Club in Kalispell, Montana, an organization instrumental in helping the park obtain the certification. “That was a great milestone for them and we are proud to be part of it.”
Paulson explains that our dark skies are part of the environment and they need to be protected. In fact, light pollution is a serious problem that compromises our view of the universe, interferes with astronomical observations, as well as wastes billions of dollars a year, as well as many other adverse effects.
One of the biggest and most common issues of light pollutions is hindering our ability to see the stars in the night sky. “Two-thirds of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way at night,” says Mark Biehl, Natural Resources Program Manager for Glacier National Park.
Biehl said he notices how people react when experiencing the night sky during the monthly star parties held at Logan Pass in Glacier throughout the summer. He enjoys sitting back and watching the kids huddled next to their parents as the stars gleam above them. When the Milky Way appears, he says, “Their jaws hit the floor. It’s neat to see that connection.”
For most of human existence, dark skies were the norm. People could look up on a cloudless night and watch the celestial display as easily as they noticed the Sun during the day. Yet, since the common practice of lighting the night began roughly a century ago, we gradually lost the ability to easily and clearly stargaze.
Some Important Facts:
- Lights at night interfere with wildlife. Artificial lights at night not only affect human health, disrupting our circadian rhythms, but they affect the ecosystem.
- Birds that navigate by the Moon or the stars are thrown off course. Artificial light is notorious for disrupting the timing of bird migrations, and causing the demise of millions of birds through flying into lit structures or simply being at the wrong location at the wrong time.
- Artificial light also throws off the entire predator-prey dynamic, sometimes illuminating prey species ultimately leading to their demise. If deer are under a yard or parking lot light, they won’t be able to see a mountain lion lurking in the harsh shadows giving the cat an advantage.
- Artificial light can also change the croaks and calls of various breeding frogs and toads. When there’s too much light, they don’t realize it’s the right time to look for a mate.
The Importance of The Night Sky At Glacier National Park
Glacier and Waterton personnel have long known the importance of the night sky and agreed that steps were needed to make a change. They enlisted the help from a number of volunteers who worked exclusively on the dark sky application for both parks for a year, to catalog all of the lights in the park, indicating whether they were dark-sky compliant.
They did an inventory on of all of the light fixtures, including parking lots, porch lights, and those on buildings and found out they have over 2,000 lights in the park.
Because their IDA designation is a preliminary one, Biehl said they have 3 years to make progress by updating at least 67 percent of their lighting systems into dark-sky compliant forms. This may include different bulbs, canopies over lights, and eliminating some fixtures that aren’t even necessary. As a result, they will be creating a not only a richer experience for visitors who can finally see a true night sky, but they will be seeing a significant change in their energy bill.
What Can You Do To Reduce Light Pollution?
All of us can take a cue from Waterton-Glacier’s efforts to reduce light pollution in order to preserve the visibility of our night sky. Yard lighting doesn’t have to be a security light that is on throughout the night. Strategically directed motion lights can provide a sense of safety in particular areas without bathing the night in light. Utilizing the warm light, which is more of a yellow tone rather than the blue lights that mimic daylight, are another small change anyone can make.
For those who visit Waterton-Glacier, enjoy the beauty of the parks during the day, but definitely don’t miss the extraordinary celestial show at night. And as their lights become fainter, even more of the stars will shine brighter.
Check out how one town went dark in order to see the Milky Way!
Amy Grisak is a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer specializing in gardening, local food, and stories about her home state of Montana. She enjoys sharing her experiences with self-reliant living and outdoor recreation. Her article on the "hugelkultur" gardening technique appears in the 2021 Farmers' Almanac. You can follow her topics on her site, AmyGrisak.com.