January 31, 2011

Sark Earns ‘Dark Sky Island’ Title

The Isle of Sark, the smallest of four main Channel Islands, earned the title "Dark Sky Island" for its spectacular night sky views.

Sark has its fair share of visitors in the summer months and is also a haven for rare wildlife.

The island is full of wildflower walks, scarecrow competitions and sheep races.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) has declared Sark the first "dark sky island" in the world.

The organization is devoted to preserving the darkest and most beautiful night skies on Earth.  The island community worked hard in the last year to ensure as little light as possible spills upwards into the sky.

"You get spectacular views from lots of places in the UK, but there are few very special sites that are world class in terms of how dark they are," Steve Owens, an astronomer who led Sark's application to the IDA, said in a statement quoted by The Guardian.

"If you go to a place like Sark, the Milky Way is a regular feature of the night sky. It always fills me with a sense of wonder. Each of those dots is a sun and there are 100 billion of them. It makes me appreciate how special Earth is. We've not found anywhere else in the cosmos that is a perfect haven for life."

Officials on Sark measured night time illumination levels and submitted digital photographs that showed the clarity of constellations in the night sky.  Owens visited every outside light on the isle and made recommendations to reduce the amount of light escaping from them into the sky.

In Sark, there are no public streetlights and few buildings are floodlit.  The favored night time accessory for locals is a head torch.  Cars are banned from the island, and the only motor vehicles allowed on Sark are tractors. 

The government of Sark, the Chief Pleas, welcomed the award as recognition of the island's environmental credentials and as a potential boost for its economy.

"Our tourism is geared towards sunny weather, but this might bring people over in their woolly jumpers in the winter months when we have some wonderful night skies," Paul Williams, chairman of the island's agriculture committee, whose other hats include that of volunteer firefighter and special constable, said in a press release.

"Astronomy is catching on and lots of people want to know about the stars and planets, and whether there is life out there. Who knows, maybe they'll spot something from Sark," he told the Guardian.

The island is usually reached by boat from Guernsey, but services run from Jersey and France. 

Sark joins a select group of dark sky regions around the world, including Galloway forest park in southern Scotland, which became Europe's first dark sky park in 2009. 

Keith Muir, head of tourism at the park, told The Guardian that the award prompted an upsurge in interest in astronomy and the night sky.

"The interest has grown and grown. We've even had requests from people to come up and renew their marriage vows under the stars. A lot of people don't realize how dark it is and go home early because they get scared shitless," Muir said.


Image 1: Stargazers on Sark enjoy the wonder of the Milky Way. Credit: Martin Morgan-Taylor/RAS

Image 2: The Milky Way above the Seigneur's Mill on Sark. Credit: Martin Morgan-Taylor/RAS


On the Net: