A Well-Hidden, Accessible Experience That May Be In Your Neighborhood

Photo Courtesy of Shaun M Richey Freelance Photography

Light Pollution and Dark Zones

Many people have heard of Light Pollution, whether they know what it means or not. Even fewer people have heard of Dark Zones or Dark Sky Areas. No, it’s not some Mad Max apocalyptic area where people run a lawless society. Wikipedia describes it as: “Light pollution is the presence of anthropogenic artificial light in otherwise dark conditions.” Most of us don’t think about light pollution, as it isn’t something you’ll hear in the general media. On any given day you are unable to see the constellations and milky way galaxy in detail, or at all, because of light pollution.

Dark Zones are areas that have been the least affected by light pollution. These areas may seem like they are rare, hard to find, or require extensive travel. But this couldn’t be more wrong. Dark Zones are scattered all over the world, and in places that you wouldn’t expect. I live in Ohio, and there is a Dark Zone within 2-hours of my home. These locations may be concentrated in rural areas, or more spread out in suburban areas. The people over at Darksitefinder, have developed a web-based mapping application for finding these areas easier.

The Milky Way Galaxy

In Dark Zones the light pollution is low enough that you can view the Milky Way Galaxy with the naked eye. That’s right, the naked eye; no telescope or observatory is needed. Different periods of the year, will either improve or change your view of the Milky Way. The Milky Way Season takes place from February to October, between 12 am and 5 am. Your location in the world and the moon phase also change your ability to view it. Nights with a New Moon, are the best as Earth’s position is ideal for viewing the Milky Way.

Early morning is the best time from February till June. July to August would be closer to Midnight. While evenings are ideal from September through late October, shortly after sunset. Keeping this in mind, it is easy to plan when you want to view the Milky Way.

Camera Technology

Since the 1800s people have been fascinated by photos of astronomical objects. The first recorded was of the moon, in 1840. As technology improved by the 19th century, it was becoming more possible to photograph the night sky in more detail than ever before. Today this is known as Astrophotography, and it has become more entrancing with the latest camera technology.

Most people carry smartphones in our technology-driven society. Smartphones in the last decade have grown to meet DSLR cameras on even ground in the photography world. A lot of consumers are unaware that they are capable of photographing the Milky Way Galaxy with nothing more than their smartphone. This is where Dark Zones come into the equation. To learn how to capture photos of the Milky Way with just your phone, check out this step-by-step tutorial by Photofocus.

Dark Zone Accessibility

Many dark zones are so remote they may be in the middle of an open highway, far from the nearest city. While others may be in the wide open and flat areas of the midwest plains, such as Arizona and Nevada. You might be lucky enough to have Dark Zones near you, that are situated in the hills. Where you can simply park on the side of a backroad, and get some of the most mind-blowing views ever. For example, Hocking Hills in Ohio is know as a great scenic destination that is also accessible. One of the most popular sites at Hocking Hills is the John Glenn Astronomy Park, which is wheelchair accessible. It has handicapped parking, and a paved courtyard to view the sky from. Around this paved area is a large open field, perfect for extended late-night stays. These are great for small budgets, and day trips. If you or your family owns a 4×4 vehicle, you have even more options for Dark Zones.

A Dream-Like Trip

A majority of Dark Zones fall in areas that aren’t controlled by any organizations. Making them ideal options for a free road trip, outside of your normal travel expenses. Camper, RV, and Campervan drivers plan trip stops around these Dark Zones, for amazing views before bedtime. Imagine gazing at the Milky Way galaxy from the window or sunroof of your camper, as you drift off to sleep.

Several U.S National Parks are found in Dark Zones. They have publicly open observatories, telescopes, or astronomy guides on site. These specific locations will often offer the use of their facilities and have astronomy lectures. Turning a free day trip, into an educational and awe-inspiring experience. Some of these facilities are recognized and certified by the International Dark Sky Association, or IDA, as Dark Sky Parks. A few of these certified IDA locations include Arches, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree, Mammoth Cave National Parks as well as Craters of the Moon National Monument.

So the next time you’re looking for an out-of-the-ordinary experience, on a budget. Consider taking your loved ones to view the Milky Way Galaxy, and even possibly, stay close to home in the process.

If you would like to dive more deeply into Light Pollution and its impact, be sure to check out this National Geographic Article.