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Weeklong events celebrate dark skies, battle against light pollution

Starry Skies North sees increased interest in night sky watching with aurora outbreaks.

Aurora May 2016
The ability to predict aurora borealis outbreaks has increased interest in night sky watching and in dark sky advocacy, according to members of Starry Skies North, the Minnesota Chapter of the International Dark Sky Association.
Bob King / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — When the aurora borealis erupted across the Northland sky the nights of Sept. 2 and 3, social media platforms exploded with photos from just about every Tom, Dick and Harriet who was outdoors and facing north.

And that brought a smile to Bob Foucault’s face.

Foucault is vice president of Starry Skies North, the Minnesota chapter of the International Dark Sky Association, a global group dedicated to reducing light pollution and improving dark-sky vistas. And he’s happy that more people are looking up at night. The improving ability of astronomers to predict aurora forecasts, coupled with social media blasts, are increasing public awareness and interest in night skies.

“All those photos of the aurora really showed how many people are getting interested in night skies. More people are paying attention, and social media is really helping with that,” Foucault said.

Starry Skies North formed a few years when dark sky advocates in the Twin Ports and the Twin Cities decided to join forces in the long but often little-known battle to reduce light pollution locally, regionally and globally.

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04dec18_1236.jpg
The Milky Way and three bright stars of the Summer Triangle stand under dark, light-pollution-free skies well north of Duluth. Within and near the city, lights can make it difficult to see the stars well, and that's why the group Starry Skies North is trying to raise awareness of the importance of dark skies and taming light pollution.
Bob King / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune

Imagine not being able to see the Big Dipper, or the Milky Way or shooting stars, or the aurora — all part of the outdoor experiences many Northlanders take for granted. But that’s the plight of an increasing number of people who live in urban areas, even in the core of Duluth.

“Dark skies are an important part of life, for people and for animals. It’s a quality of life issue,” said Foucault, a now mostly retired video producer who lives on Caribou Lake just outside Duluth.

Starry Skies North is set to hold a week-long celebration of dark skies — Celebrate the Night Sky Week — with several free events, all aimed at drawing attention to the goal of darker skies in more places.

Voyageurs National Park could be next for dark sky certfication.

Starry Skies North has about 250 people on its mailing list — most in Duluth, Minneapolis and Grand Marais, Foucault said. The group originally formed as Starry Skies Lake Superior in 2012 and successfully lobbied the city of Duluth to alter the color and shading styles for outdoor street lighting in 2015, the first big public project in the area.

“We can always use new people to help,” he noted, adding that the Minnesota group is helping form other Dark Sky chapters in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Dakota.

The national park and the Boundary Waters are the only Minnesota locations with this certification.

Foucault said light pollution may not be as well chronicled as air or water pollution but may be much easier to solve. Simply turning off a switch, or switching out the type of light bulb used, can help solve the problem. The goal is softer, warmer, often more yellow lighting and avoiding harsh white or blue, Foucault said.

“The goal is to get warmer lighting that’s focused where it’s needed” on the road, sidewalk or parking lot, and not into the sky, Foucault noted. “It’s a pretty simple fix: Put light where you need it when you need it.”

What’s a dark sky?

In the global effort to reduce light pollution, the term dark sky describes a sky that isn't "lit" by sky glow or light pollution. What’s light pollution? Imagine using a lamp indoors without a lampshade. That’s what’s happening with a lot of outdoor lighting.

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Supporters say improving and preserving the Northland’s dark sky vistas will not only improve the quality of life for residents but will encourage “astro tourism” as more people seek to escape big urban areas so they can see a clear night sky. Light pollution from large urban areas like the Twin Cities and Chicago spread “sky glow” for hundreds of miles. People in those areas currently need to travel to experience the beauty of night skies.

While lights are critical to night safety, both driving and walking, more light isn't necessarily safer. Reducing glare, avoiding loss of low-light vision and maintaining contrasts are all essential to maintaining safe driving and walking conditions while reducing light pollution.

Adopting smart lighting systems that adjust to traffic patterns could save billions of dollars annually across the U.S., dark-sky advocates note, because more than 80% of the light now being cast outdoors in the country is shining off into space, wasted light that’s wasting electricity and contributing to climate change.

Night Sky Week
Starry Skies North, the Minnesota chapter of the International Dark Sky Association, is sponsoring Celebrate the Night Sky Week Sept. 12-17.
Contributed / Travis Novitsky / Starry Skies North

Celebrate the Night Sky Week schedule of events

  • Monday Sept. 12: 7 p.m. Free online webinar, “Fifty Nights Under the Stars,” a photographic journey through Minnesota. Award-winning night photographer Mike Shaw will share his night images and time-lapse videos created while documenting night sky quality for the Bell Museum. Registration required; visit event.webinarjam.com/register/64/oyz1lum3 .
  • Wednesday Sept. 14: 6-8:30 p.m. Night Sky Trivia at Ursa Minor Brewing, 2415 W. Superior St., Duluth, with a presentation by Jessica Rogers, director of the University of Minnesota Duluth Planetarium.
  • Thursday, Sept. 15: 7 p.m. Space Trivia at Amity Coffee House, 4429 E. Superior St., Duluth. 
  • Friday, Sept. 16:  7 p.m. Free planetarium show at UMD’s Alworth Planetarium, 1023 University Drive, Duluth, “Exploring Dark Skies,“ with telescopes available afterward outside.
  • Saturday, Sept.17: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Free informational dark sky display at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth. Naturalist presentation at 1 p.m. by Starry Skies North President Todd Burlet.
  • Saturday, Sept. 17: 7 p.m. Free presentations and star party at  Fitger's Spirit of the North Theater, 600 E. Superior St., Duluth, with Travis Novitsky, Carl Gawboy and “Astro” Bob King. Stargazing on the Fitger's Patio with Arrowhead Astronomical Society and UMD Planetarium.

For more information, go to starryskiesnorth.org or facebook.com/darkskyduluth .

Night sky photo and children’s art contests

Starry Skies North is hosting a photography contest and children’s art contest focused on increasing awareness of the beauty and value of night skies and the importance of darkness to humans. Photographs and artwork should illustrate and celebrate the night sky. You can print out a template or create your own design. Artwork and night sky photography should be original work.

Email entries to info@starryskiesnorth.org or mail to UMD Planetarium, 1023 University Drive, MWAH 37, Duluth, MN 55812.

Did you know?

In 2020 the International Dark Sky Association designated both the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park as certified dark sky areas, the first such areas in Minnesota and the largest in the U.S.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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