Death Valley Honored by Dark-Sky Association

Source: NPSDeath Valley National Park: the lowest, driest and hottest place in North America is now adding another designation to its list. The 3.4 million-acre park has been certified as the third International Dark-Sky Park in the U.S. National Park System. Criteria the park met to achieve the qualifications for certification include the typical observer in the area not being distracted by glare from lights and the entire range of sky phenomena—aurora, airglow, Milky Way, zodiacal light, faint meteors, etc.—is able to be viewed from the area.

“We greatly appreciate the International Dark-Sky Association certification. It illustrates the park’s commitment to protect natural darkness and supports the wider mission to protect nightscapes in the entire National Park System,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

With such immense space separating it from urban regions, Death Valley is naturally dark; however, efforts still needed to be made in order for the park to qualify for the selection. In the Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells areas, external lighting was improved. Energy consumption, sky glow and glare were all reduced due to these renovations. Ameliorating small light sources like at Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells can improve the viewing conditions for visitors even if they are not in the immediate vicinity of the light. Even minimal light sources can add light pollution and obscure the dark-adaptation of the human eye. A basic street lamp can illuminate a person 500 feet from it using .0005 lux of illumination. In the night sky, only the moon, .01 lux, emits higher illumination that that. In order to maintain the designation, Death Valley must sustain its efforts to protect night sky resources and continue visitor education.

Despite the size of the park and its distance from major cities, the glow from Las Vegas still affects the viewing at Death Valley from 120 miles away. A plan to reduce this effect further is currently being explored by the park. One possible effort involves the use of outdoor light fixtures in the park that will direct light to the ground instead of to the side or upwards.

Visitors can appreciate the vast sky by taking part in some of the programs the park offers. Once a month, park rangers at Death Valley put on Night Sky Programs to further educate visitors. They also team with astronomy organizations to hold stargazing events that allow visitors to use high-powered telescopes to enjoy the beauty of a sky that can be observed from few other places on earth.

“At Death Valley the sky literally begins at your feet,” said Tyler Nordgren, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Redlands (Calif.) and International Dark-Sky Association board member. “When my students and I look up at night from our southern California campus, we can usually count 12 stars in the sky. However, less than a five-hour drive from Los Angeles there's a place where anyone can look up and see the universe the way everyone could 100 years ago.”

Death Valley joins Natural Bridges Monument and Big Bend National Park as the only NPS parks to receive the dark sky designation. The International Dark-Sky Association does, however, recommend other places in the United States that offer excellent opportunities to view the night sky:

Flagstaff, Ariz.
Borrego Springs, Calif.
Homer Glenn, Ill.

Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania
Goldendale Observatory Park in Washington
Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico
Observatory Park in Ohio
The Headlands park in Michigan

Image: Death Valley's 3.4 million acres provides ample space for visitors to enjoy the night sky Source: NPS