The making of a Dark Sky Preserve: Jasper National Park has gone dark in a unique partnership

Roadtrippers Magazine, May 13th, 2019

Original Article Online

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By Heide Brandes

The temperature at what seems like the top of the world is brutally cold enough to steal your breath away, but the view spread before me in the full moon glow of midnight does the same.

We stood on the edge of a cliff high in the Canadian Rockies of Jasper National Park in Alberta in the dead of night to bow to the weight of the stars, one of the newest main attractions in Alberta’s largest national park.

A bright round moon, however, hung like a god’s eye in the sky above. Its brilliance blotted out the twinkle of stars, but the seemingly endless waves of jagged mountain peaks glowed with a silvery blue aura in the moonlight.

I’ve always had a hypnotic fascination with gazing up at the stars at night. Looking out at the knife-like ice-covered peaks of the Canadian Rockies in Jasper, I was struck again how the dark sky there was as big as the universe itself. The light of Orion’s Belt and the hazy gaze of the Seven Sisters constellations gifted the mountains below me with a silence that only far-flung wild places far from the city lights all seem to have.

We had ventured out into the bone-breaking cold midnight to stargaze in one of the darkest places in Jasper National Park after a show at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge Planetarium. Inside the planetarium, which hosts a celestial educational program, the universe swirled around and above us in the new 50-seat dome as a “star guide” led us on a journey through our galaxy before leading us outside to peer at nebulas and dying stars through the largest telescope in the Rockies.

Jasper is the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world, according to the Canadian Astrological Society, and on moonless nights, that black expanse of space looks dusted in the powdered sugar of millions of stars.

The mountains were clearly visible at midnight. They shone. The snow blocked out all sound and even the three wolf packs that call this park home bowed to the weight of silence. It was a place where the universe watches us as we watch it right back. Beauty in Jasper is just as present in the dead of night as it is during the day, but creating an environment where the night can shine takes more than just dimming the lights.

As more and more information emerges about the health and ecological damage that light pollution creates, more communities and parks are taking steps to create dark sky preserves. But these preserves don’t happen on their own; cities, parks services, residents and tourism all come together to make the skies go dark in unique partnerships.

THE MAKING OF A DARK SKY PRESERVE In 2011, Jasper was designated as a Dark Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society in Canada after it limited light pollution and created ideal conditions for dark sky viewing. In order to become a Preserve, the area had to have no artificial lighting visible and measures were put in place to educate the public and nearby towns about light pollution. The sky glow from outside the border of the preserve had to match that of a natural sky glow.

Jasper National Park is one of the wildest of the mountain parks in Canada. Established in 1907 as the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies, it also home to the world-famous Columbia Icefields, one of the only Icefields in the world accessible by road. The proposal to make the park into a Dark Sky Preserve was prepared by Parks Canada in collaboration with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the Municipality of Jasper along with partners Tourism Jasper and Jasper Chamber of Commerce, making it a multi-universal effort.

The park already met some of the criteria, such as large tracts of truly dark skies, several dark sky easy-to-access observation sites and an extensive interpretation program. Parks Canada, the Municipality of Jasper and private partners are continuing to exchange those with appropriate dark sky-friendly fixtures. Meanwhile, Parks Canada has expanded its dark sky-oriented interpretation programs and the private sector is now also offering dark sky-related experiences,” said Steve Young, public relations and communications director for Parks Canada.

Today, 97 percent of the park is a designated wilderness area, free of light pollution, with roads and trails providing easy access to year-round stargazing sites.

“Jasper National Park is one of 17 designated Dark Sky Preserves in Canada. At 11,000 square kilometers, we are the second largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world, and we are the largest accessible Dark Sky Preserve – meaning there’s a town within the limits of the preserve,” said Myriam Bolduc, marketing manager for Tourism Jasper.

“As cities grew, so did the amount of outdoor lighting. The resulting light pollution has masked most stars, forcing people to venture far beyond their home metropolis to witness the Milky Way. A growing body of evidence suggests light pollution can negatively affect human health, along with insect and animal populations.”

According to the 2016 report “World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness,” 80 percent of the world’s population lives under artificial skyglow. In Europe and the United States, 99 percent of the public can’t see what a non-polluted night sky looks like.

That public is also affected by all that light pollution, according to the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health. Humans, like most living things, work on a circadian rhythm, which sets our biological clock.

That clock can be thrown off by exposure to artificial light at night, especially blue-rich light that comes from LEDs used in most outdoor lighting. In fact, the AMA said the blue-rich white light at night has been linked to increased risk for cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Artificial light from cities affect animals and insects even worse. Sea turtles hatch on beaches only at night and hatchlings make their mad scramble to the sea by watching the bright horizon over the ocean. With all the artificial lights in cities, hatchings become confused and move away from the ocean to become stranded on land.

In Florida alone, millions of hatchlings die this way every year.

Artificial light is suspected in causing migratory birds to veer off course and into dangerous nighttime landscapes of cities, says the International Dark Sky Association. Every year, millions of birds die by smashing into illuminated buildings and towers or migrate too early or too late.

“Around the property, we’ve invested several thousands of dollars to install these specialty dark skylights that only project light to the ground and minimize the amount of light that spread into the sky,” said Taylor Lancee, public relations manager at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge.

“Another super interesting thing is that all the city lights were actually shifting the migratory patterns of birds in the area. So by minimizing the light pollution, we’re actually enhancing the bird populations coming into Jasper during the right times of year.”

The national park wasn’t the only place to make major changes like replacing outdoor lighting with dark sky lighting. The Jasper Community Sustainability Plan, developed in 2011, was the town of Jasper’s attempt to protect its skies. The town developed the “Efficient Outdoor Lighting” community handbook to help Jasper residents choose outdoor lighting. Because Jasper lies within the boundaries of the preserve, it had to comply to the DSP lighting protocols and all lighting in the town must eventually be dark sky friendly.

Residents who light their property at night had to change to downward-facing, shielded lighting on timers or motion sensors and switched the blue light LED lights to amber, which minimized the effect on wildlife behavior and reproduction. “The global citizens of the world who live in major cities overrun with light pollution have lost the simple and joyous ability to look up and view the beautiful night sky above us all,” said Lancee.

“A Dark Sky Preserve allows the locals and visitors of Jasper to enjoy uninterrupted views of 500,000 stars in Jasper’s 11,000 square kilometers. To look up and see the Northern Lights, The Milky Way and the tens of thousands of shining shimmering stars, galaxies and nebulas on any given night of the year is an experience one will cherish for the rest of their life.”

In addition, visitors are reeling in to view the stars, making dark sky preservation a destination as well.

“The growing interest in dark sky preserves reflects two important tourism trends. Visitors are looking for unique and memorable experiences. At the same time, tourism can support Alberta’s economic growth, strong communities and environmental sustainability—ensuring the province continues to be a place where people want to work, play, live and invest,” said Travel Alberta’s Shelley Grollmuss, Vice President, Industry Development.

“Alberta is known for its wide-open skies. Dark sky tours allow people to get out in nature, away from the traffic and lights of the city, to experience the amazing celestial view complete with stargazing equipment and a knowledgeable guide. I guarantee it will take your breath away. And if you’re lucky and time it right, you just might see the Northern Lights—one of those ‘goosebump moments’ that inspire the world to visit Alberta.”

DARK SKY FESTIVAL Thanks to the efforts, Jasper National Park boasts of one of the best stargazing destinations in North America, and it’s easy to see why.

When Jasper National Park earned its preserve certification, it created the Dark Skies Festival, held annually in October by Tourism Jasper. Since 2011, the two-week-long Dark Sky Festival brings thousands of people into the park to explore starry mysteries, dance under the Aurora Borealis and take part in stargazing adventures under the peaks of the Canadian Rockies.

Besides the nightly light show the universe puts on, the festival includes events throughout the month both in Jasper National Park and in the town-site of Jasper like VIP stargazing receptions, talks with NASA astronauts and scientists and a view of the swirling blue and green Northern Lights.

Guests and visitors of Jasper also have an opportunity to experience the sounds of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra through Symphony Under the Stars at Jasper Park Lodge.

Last year, the Symphony Under the Stars welcomed over 700 guests to experience the orchestra,” said Lancee. “It was amazing. We started out with rain and snow and fog, but then it turned into a beautiful night with shooting stars. People were just star struck to see this huge orchestra play in the outdoors with all the stars visible.”

For many people, seeing the universe in all its natural glory can be a life-changing experience.

“An elderly guest from China was visiting us back in December 2018. I remember speaking with this woman’s daughter who told me her mother grew up during China’s industrialization period where the night sky and the stars were not able to be seen due to all of the production and growth of large cities,” Lancee said.

“She told me when she and her mother were walking home from dinner the night prior, her mother looked up and saw the stars for the first time in her life and she began crying with enjoyment.”

The festival is so popular that on May 1, Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge announced a new partnership agreement with the Jasper Planetarium, which extends the Jasper Planetarium & Telescope Experience to a year-round experience for the next three years.

The Planetarium will now remain open May 1 to October 31 with nightly viewings of the Planetarium & Telescope Experience, which offers a live virtual tour of Jasper’s Dark Sky through local Aboriginal constellations, Jasper’s Northern Lights and orbit through space in around 40 minutes.

“Most of the park already had dark skies; the designation ensures that these dark skies are preserved, and in the town of Jasper, improved through responsible lighting,” said Young. “The designation has led to increased visitation during the Dark Sky Festival in October, traditionally a period with lower visitation. But most importantly, the designation and festival have raised with visitors the importance of preserving our dark skies and installing responsible lighting.”

For more information and to purchase an experience at the Jasper Planetarium, visit Fairmont.com.

SEEING STARS Jasper National Park is a favorite location for roadtrippers, Lancee said, thanks to it being located four hours from Edmonton, five hours from Calgary or three hours from Lake Louise.

Any time of year is ideal for getting starstruck at Jasper, however. Jasper is a year-round camping destination and can accommodate anything from a one-person bivy tent to the largest motorhome and everything in between.

All of the campgrounds in the national parks are operated by the parks service and can be found listed on each park's website. Campsites with RV hook-ups are in fairly high demand and somewhat short supply, so making a reservation early is always a good idea.

Throughout the massive national park, the night sky is waiting to show off its bright mysteries. According to Jasper Tourism, some of the best places to witness celestial starry masterpieces include Medicine Lake, located 25 kilometers outside the town of Jasper. This blue glacier-fed lake disappears with the arrival of autumn, but the stars and the aurora borealis remain all year long.

Maligne Canyon is the deepest canyon in the park filled with roaring waterfalls but is also located in one of the darkest areas of the park. The wooden boardwalk leading into the canyon is ideal for witnessing the beauty of the bright stars.

Athabasca Falls may not be the largest waterfall in Jasper National Park, but beholding the roar of the falls with mountains looming in the distance under a night sky makes the falls a powerful site to stargaze. Of course, the Columbia Icefields is an otherwordly destination to begin with, but truly becomes a celestial and ghostly landscape at night.

Fans of the Northern Lights have a better-than-good chance of witnessing the event within the park’s borders as well.

“The Aurora Borealis is definitely hot, hot, hot. You're looking at KP indexes (used to measure aurora borealis) of about five to seven, so we're able to compete as a destination with the Northwest Territories, Iceland and the Yukon,” said Lancee.

“If you're looking at the traditional places to go for Aurora tourism, we're able to check that box off in little old Jasper, which is amazing. Some places are such a touristy locations that it's very difficult for them to limit the light pollution that they're spreading to the sky. It’s not like that here. It’s pure here.”

For more information on visiting Jasper National Park’s Dark Sky Festival, visit jasperdarksky.travel or for camping and visitors’ information, visit jaspernationalpark.com.

For more information about Dark Skies and how you can make a difference in light pollution, visit the International Dark Sky Association at darksky.org.

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