New Zealand could be global dark sky ambassador, experts say

New Zealand could be the most likely to not only become a dark sky nation, but to help spread the preservation and promotion of dark skies globally, delegates to the New Zealand Starlight Conference in Tekapo were told on Monday.

About 100 people from across New Zealand and beyond registered for the four day event entitled ‘Towards a Dark Sky Nation’ to listen to experts from around the world talk about the health, environmental, cultural and economic benefits of dark skies.

Monday, the second day of the conference, was opened by Ruskin Hartley, executive director of the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), who explained 80 per cent of people live under light polluted skies and can’t see the milky way, and only one per cent of those know they’re missing anything.

Light pollution is growing a rate of two per cent – that’s double population growth, he said.

“It’s not difficult to solve, we have the technology,” Hartley said.

“We can turn lights off, we can dim them, we can literally fix the problem at the speed of light.”

In the next 5-10 years, more needs to be done to increase awareness of light pollution, protect dark places through IDA’s certification programme, engage communities in reducing light pollution through responsible lighting policies, and implement coordinated, intentional and scalable actions to slow, halt and reverse light pollution, he said.

New Zealand may play a key part in spreading the word Adam Dalton, international dark sky places programme manager, said.

New Zealand has three IDA accredited places: the first was Aoraki/Mackenzie, second was Aotea/Great Barrier Island and third was Stewart Island.

There are 14 aspiring dark sky places in the country which are going through the IDA application process and even more working towards the status which have not officially started the process for accreditation.

“For it’s population and size, there are more applications to IDA from New Zealand than any other comparable country worldwide,” Dalton said.

He believes New Zealand is the “most promising place” to become a dark sky nation and go on to be an international thought leader on the subject.

The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve was the first site in New Zealand to get Dark Sky accreditation and the first in the world to get gold star status. It encompasses 4367 square kilometres and there are hopes to extend it to the Mackenzie border which will almost double it’s size to about 7000sqkm.

There were nearly 1 million overnight guests in the Mackenzie area in the year ending March 2019, up from 500 compared to the same period in March 2014.

Tourism spend in the area now exceeds $320m per year, compared to about $120m in 2012 when the Dark Sky accreditation was first awarded.

Professor John Hearnshaw, chair of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve board, estimates about 10 per cent of Mackenzie’s tourism comes from the dark sky and astro-tourism opportunities.

Similar success can be seen in New Zealand’s other dark sky places.

On Great Barrier Island, accredited in 2017, they have seen a tourism increase of about 30 per cent a year, reaching into the shoulder months. On Stewart Island, which only achieved accreditation this year and has had little opportunity to promote it, tourism increased by 17 per cent between April and September.

In addition to the economic benefits, Hearnshaw highlighted there are many more educational and cultural benefits.

“Every developed and civilised country needs a flourishing astronomical observatory on its soil for the training of students, for public outreach to the local populace and as an intellectual resource to inspire people in order to provide a spiritual and emotional connection with the universe,” Hearnshaw said.

Also speaking on the second day of the conference were Robert Dick, CEO of the Canadian Lighting Company; Richard Wainscote, Institute of Astronomy at the University of Hawaii; Mike Gedder, EnergyLight; Lara and David Mitchell, Lumican on the impact of light pollution and tactics to combat it.

Megan Millar and Jason Menard, Mackenzie Region representatives at Christchurch NZ spoke about the impact of astro-tourism.