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Grand Canyon Will Soon Be a Dark Sky Park

After three years of retrofitting lights, the national park will soon be certified by the International Dark Sky Association

(Jeremy M. White / NPS)
smithsonian.com

Some of the best views in the world are found at vantages around Arizona’s Grand Canyon. That includes the view looking up at night; the remote area has some of the darkest skies and shiniest stars in the whole world, and the International Dark Sky Association is expected to make that official by designating Grand Canyon National Park an International Dark Sky Park in the coming days.

The upcoming designation means that the park has a “distinguished quality” of its starry nights or nocturnal environment. In other words, it’s really dark, and the skies look similar to what humans would have seen hundreds or thousands of years ago.

While the area is so remote it's naturally super-dark, earning the designation has taken a little work to minimize the impact of 5 million people who visit annually. According to Weldon Johnson at The Arizona Republic the Grand Canyon was issued “provisional” status as a dark sky park in 2016 with the understanding that to earn official Dark Sky status the park would retrofit two-thirds of its outdoor lights within three years.

“Our mission to preserve and protect the Canyon for future generations is important during the day — and also at night,” Susan Schroeder, chief executive officer of the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the non-profit supporting the effort, said at the time. “Our members and donors are very engaged in helping the park preserve our night sky. We’ve funded the assessment work and now look forward to funding the retrofitting portion of the project so the night sky is protected for all, forever.”

Johnson reports that the park has replaced 67 percent of its fixtures, roughly 1,500, with shielded, dark-sky friendly fixtures outfitted with lower-watt LEDs, focusing on the area around Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, where lights from hotels and lodges have become an increasing problem. The park hopes to have 90 percent of the fixtures replaced by 2022.

While The International Dark Sky Association says it is still waiting on documentary evidence that the changes have been made, Jamie Carter at Travel+Leisure reports a media event to celebrate the designation is planned for June 22. The Grand Canyon is also hosting its annual Star Party June 22-29, where amateur astronomy clubs will set up their telescopes at both the South and North rims to give visitors a view of Jupiter and Saturn as well as galaxies, star clusters and other celestial goodies.

Dark skies are critical to migratory animals like birds and turtles who use starlight to navigate. Too much light at night, especially blue light from screens and some light bulbs, can disrupt the normal hormonal and sleep cycles of humans and also disrupt the life cycles of many nocturnal creatures.

Currently, significant light pollution from streetlights, businesses, homes, cars and other man-made sources impacts 83 percent of the world’s population, while 14 percent of people live in areas so bright at night they do not need to use their natural night-time vision.

The International Dark Sky Association was formed in 1988 to preserve or improve areas with low levels of light pollution and to prevent the spread of light pollution in other areas. Currently, the organization has certified 115 Dark Sky Places around the world, including many U.S. national parks such as Big Bend, Joshua Tree and Canyonlands.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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