New Zealand is known globally for its “Clean Green”, “100% pure” image which attracts thousands of tourists to our shores every year. So often when the word “conservation” is mentioned in conversation we think of our beautiful waterways, mountains, and endangered species. However we rarely perceive our night sky as a part of conservation. A vulnerable resource, so significant that it is intertwined in the history and founding of New Zealand.
In 2009 the New Zealand Starlight Reserve Committee (NZSRC) presented their case to create new conservation zones called starlight reserves at a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This concept of starlight reserves is being pushed more and more by several major observatories all over the world. Mt John observatory located near Lake Tekapo is New Zealand’s proposed site. The NZSRC wishes to preserve the night sky along with the rich heritage associated with it. This heritage is not only significant to the Maori but also Pakeha settlers. Interestingly even Captain James Cook was drawn to the pacific to observe the transit of Venus.
A major hindrance to the creation and sustaining of starlight reserves is light pollution. The growth of towns and cities and the street lighting can very quickly devour views of the night sky. Our ancestors have gazed upon the stars for thousands of years, wondering what these twinkling diamonds in the sky were, and what else could lie beyond the grasp of humanity. However, as technology has advanced, some of these questions have been answered, but have left us with bigger questions. We no longer need the stars to navigate or track animals with the influx of technology and have lost sight of the beauty that looks down upon us every night.
The concept of starlight reserves is for observatories to work alongside the government and UNESCO in areas which are of significant interest to astronomers and to also provide rules which protect these areas from light pollution caused by near cities or towns.
There are however some issues concerning planning of the starlight reserves, especially Mt John as it is quite close to the Tekapo Township. Having a starlight reserve here could have significant impacts in regards to building planning in the area. Although in 1970 the Mackenzie District Council and Canterbury University came to an agreement in ways to reduce light pollution. Rules such as shielding of lights to reflect back toward the ground were put in place to reduce the amount of light pollution affecting the Mt John observatory. New subdivisions built in the area must also comply with all the light limiting rules outlined in the Mackenzie District Plan .
The night sky is also very important to the Waitaha people that have inhabited the Tekapo area for approximately 1000 years. They too have a strong interest in preserving the night sky. The significance of the night sky to the Waitaha can also be seen through their teachings. The star constellation Te Kupenga a Te Ao commonly known as Orion was used in signalling the start of the Maori new year and an indication of when to start planting new crops.
Since 2009, Canterbury has become the proud home of the biggest dark sky reserve in the world. After years of intense lobbying an announcement was made in 2012 that the Aoraki-Mackenzie Dark-Sky Reserve had been officially approved by a global astronomical body. The reserve which includes Mt John Observatory and Aoraki-Mt Cook village is one of just four dark sky reserves and only the second dark sky reserve in the Southern Hemisphere. It is “gold-rated” which means the darkness of the night sky is close to unbeatable. Having dark-sky reserves not only helps reduce our light pollution but could also boost tourism. Having a gold rated park is a significant accomplishment and recognizes our dark-sky reserves from the rest of the world. Humanity has learnt a lot from the stars in the past and it is clear we have not even reached the tip of the iceberg with what is yet to be found. However creating starlight reserves are definitely a step in the right direction.
We all have a right to stargaze, a right to dream of things beyond our comprehension. Just as our ancestors gazed heavenward at the chasm separating man and God, so may we to continue to look beyond what we understand and allow ourselves another opportunity to be filled with awe. Dark sky reserves are a great way to sustain this valuable resource that lies open above us every night, and to help us push further into the knowledge of some of the big questions about our universe. Equally important are also the cultural ties it holds for the people and founding of New Zealand. As the Galactic Kiwi sits in the center of the milky way, the dark skies in our country also put us in a central position to view and better understand the night sky.
The author John Ramana is a postgraduate student at Lincoln University. He wrote this article as part of his assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.