During a brief window between named storms this month, 30 or so people gather in a darkened car park on a hillside east of Snowdonia. Red lights are flashing hither and yon. “Has everyone got warm hats and decent shoes?” asks Dani Robertson, dark skies officer at the North Wales Dark Skies Partnership, with the tone of a concerned mum. “We’ve got some camping mats if you need them”
The group mumbles in the affirmative, before setting off for a 15-minute walk up Moel Famau in the Clwydian Range Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We’re here for an introductory astronomy session, one of a series of events organised for the first Welsh Dark Skies Week at several locations across the country – other options include a astro-archaeology lectures and astral photography courses. The red lights on torches and headlamps provided will allow night vision to develop – not just for the rocky path ahead, but hopefully for optimal stargazing, too.
The idea is to learn a little about the cosmos and the damage done by light pollution, and hopefully to encourage participants to contribute less unnecessary light in the evenings. The group pushes on into the chilly February night: heather fringes the footpath, and young ash trees are silhouetted ominously on the hillside to the left.
Above, there is a more obvious problem: cloud cover. “If you want to guarantee clouds, all you have to do is arrange an astronomy event,” says astronomer and college lecturer Rob Jones. “But darkness is about more than just stars,” he adds quickly.
Low clouds amplify the light pollution on the fringes of this deeply dark place. The small town of Ruthin appears as obnoxiously bright as Las Vegas Boulevard compared with the inky valleys around it. Chester lies over the horizon to the east, but glows as though aflame, its light bouncing off the clouds above.
Robertson tells the group about the manifold problems of too much light – especially the ultra-bright LEDs that have become commonplace over the past decade. She begins to explain how this can affect the health of people and animals but doesn’t get too far before the clouds miraculously begin to melt, then part. With our eyes already helpfully dilated like Ibizan clubbers, the stars – little and otherwise – twinkle-twinkle above.
Jones begins to talk us through individual stars, using a green laser pen that he appears to shoot across the galaxy. He introduces “Rigel the blue supergiant”, the brightest star in the constellation Orion. The green lance then moves north-west to point out Betelgeuse, an ancient star on its way to supernova and also part of Orion. Jones begins to stretch our level of comprehension by explaining that the star may already be dead – it’s so distant from Earth (642.5 light years) that it could have exploded before Columbus sailed to the New World in 1492, and the light from that violent event still wouldn’t have reached us yet.
A six-year-old boy – who wisely asked his parents to bring a hot-water bottle up the hill with him – has his mind gently blown by this knowledge, information he seems to accept more readily than the news that, no, that flashing light crossing the sky is not a UFO but an aircraft.
“I think it went well,” says Robertson when we meet the following afternoon, in blindingly bright weather. “Between the storms and the pandemic, I wasn’t sure how things were going to go, but the event last night was sold out and all across the country it has been really popular. It seems to have got people’s attention.”
Creating stargazers – or astral photographers, or nocturnal animal spotters – is a happy byproduct of the week, but the main aim is to improve appreciation and desire for dark skies. In this, Wales is already blessed – with two official international dark dky reserves in the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia. But Robertson and her team are in the process of applying to the International Dark Sky Association to have more regions similarly classified (including Clwydian Range and Dee Valley AONB). The Welsh Dark Skies Week is in part designed to raise awareness of this campaign, with events in national parks and AONBs all over the country.
Outside the Dark Skies Week, Robertson and colleagues run events year round: in winter they focus on stargazing, walks, telescope and astrophotography workshops and talks using a pop-up planetarium. In summer the focus is more on wildlife and biodiversity, with owl walks, bat box making, night swimming, and glow worm and nightjar walks. Go Stargazing’s Dark Sky Sites is, she adds, a good guide to places that are accessible at night and safe for the public to stargaze without having to trek miles. But further designations and awareness will bring additional benefits – part of the process to become a Dark Sky Reserve or Park is having the local authority adopt planning rules that enforce a high standard of lighting to minimise light pollution.
“We want those designations because they do bring benefits, including tourism, but for us it’s more about resident health, whether that’s people or animals,” says Robertson. “It’s about using it with consideration. We’re not trying to take people’s lights away – it’s more about getting them to use the right lights in the right places.”
She is quick to acknowledge that the widespread shift to LED lighting massively reduced the carbon footprint of conventional bulbs, while simultaneously reducing the energy bills of both households and local authorities. “Unfortunately, they didn’t have the understanding of the colour temperatures at the time – they tried to replicate daylight, so a really harsh light. That’s detrimental to human and animal health. It’s like crossing the road from carbon emissions only to be hit by the bus of biodiversity collapse.”
As human settlements have grown larger and brighter, so certain species have found it harder to orient themselves. This affectsmigratory birds and, more problematically, insects, vital pollinators and the basis of many food chains. Unlike other forms of pollution, which would take years to clean out of the environment, light is one of the easiest to fix. “You just have to switch off and that’s it,” she says. “All done.”
Welsh Dark Skies Week runs until 27 February and will return next year. For information on Dark sky adventures in Wales visit Discovery in the Dark Wales