One phrase that captures the celestial significance of Staunton River State Park: world-class skies.
The park, in Halifax County, Va., is now among the elite locations around the world that can unequivocally claim world-class skies. On July 17, Staunton River State Park, near Scottsburg, had the dedication ceremony that officially makes it the 25th IDA Dark Sky Park in the world, and the first in Virginia.
In North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park, in Yancey County, west of Spruce Pine, received the only dark-sky designation in the state in 2014.
The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) promotes preservation and protection of the night sky so sightssuch as the Milky Way can continue to be viewed around the world. The ever-increasing light pollution across the globe, especially in the United States east of the Mississippi River, diminishes the views of the night sky our predecessors enjoyed.
Once anybody could look up on a clear night and see a sky filled with stars and the Milky Way rising above them, but a growing majority have never seen these natural wonders. In many regions, the brightest of stars are snuffed out by the cannonade of photons emitted by city light. The International Dark Sky Places program, established in 2001, serves as a bulwark to protect these increasingly rare dark skies. Their aim is to encourage the use of responsible outdoor lighting to protect the nighttime environment for future generations.
The classification into a Dark Sky Park is thanks to the efforts of the staff at Staunton River State Park in conjunction with the Chapel Hill Astronomical and Observational Society. The park is committed to recognizing the importance – and preserving the integrity – of the dwindling pure dark of the night sky. This effort assists in not just stargazers’ enjoyment of the park, but also improves the quality of life for local wildlife. To achieve this, the park is working to minimize light pollution from outdoor lighting and it provides outreach programs to educate the community on the negative effects of light pollution.
The park also hosts the Staunton River Star Party, run by CHAOS, so guests and astronomers alike can stargaze under some of the East Coast’s darkest skies.
Its designation as a Silver-tiered Dark Sky Park means Staunton River State Park and the surrounding region will become an astronomy destination beyond the current scope of star parties. Park designations such as this one are critical to showing the public that we are at risk of losing more than just a dark sky. Without the black of night to show us the cosmos above, we also lose a link to the millions of tiny lights our ancestors once gazed upon, and through which their art, myths and legends were born.
Anna Morris is a volunteer in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.