Dark Park, Shooting Stars

August 08, 2016 Posted by: George Jacobi 2016

Trees silhouetted against the stars of the night sky. The Milky Way is visible in the center of the photo

A Gray Fox has the right of way anytime, but especially at 3 in the morning. He pauses after crossing the road and looks back as if to say, "What are you doing out here NOW, human?" It's a rare clear night in monsoon season, so I'm checking out where to find a wide sky view without driving a long way. This Thursday night, August 11th-12th, the Perseid meteor shower will be at its peak.

It's a crap shoot whether the sky will be empty of clouds here at the canyon, with Tropical Storm Javier moving up the coast of Mexico. But if the sky IS clear, the meteors may be awesome this year. The comet that creates them (Swift-Tuttle) passed closer to Jupiter than usual this orbit –when that has happened before, the display was abundant. After moonset will the best time. How would you like to see an average of two a minute (or more) for the prime hours between 1 and 3 AM?

The Grand Canyon is now a provisional Dark Sky Park. The plan is to become certified in 2019, the 100th Anniversary of the park, by reducing light pollution even more. This is already one of the very best places to observe the stars –it's a breathtaking sweep of the heavens wherever you look. In a time when 2/3 of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way from their home, (yikes!) the natural night sky is another vanishing resource. National Parks are on board to conserve and recover this too.

On the bright side (sorry, couldn't resist) the night sky is not gone. It's still there, easy to get back, along with savings in energy and a reduced carbon footprint, and the effort has begun. The value of darkness is not only spiritual and inspirational throughout the history of human cultures, it is CRITICAL to the many species that are nocturnal, or even partly nocturnal. Wildlife uses darkness for navigation, mating, protection, and predation.

At home in Connecticut, despite red and white oaks that sprouted in the nineteenth century, I've been able to see the night sky well until recently. Now one neighbor, a fireman, has 3 lights on outside all night for safety, and another has a lit-up American flag on a pole in his front yard. Legitimate uses, but examples of "light trespass" nevertheless. Will we be making laws to regulate such an annoyance someday?

Walking around in the dark at the canyon overlook, I find a spot to sit facing southwest, open enough to see plenty of the sky. It's a still and beautiful night. The only noise is from the busily singing crickets, an example of another new focus of Grand Canyon National Park, the protection of our soundscapes. Twenty minutes later my eyes have adjusted. There are billions and billions, (thanks, Carl Sagan), of tiny glowing far-away suns.

In a half hour, 5 or 6 meteors flash across the cosmos. Good head start, I think. A tiny light down at Indian Gardens and another from the north rim are no bother. Alas, by quarter of four, it's clear that dawn is approaching and the glow gradually begins to overtake the night. Crazy, yeah, but I'm glad I got up. 

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This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource. These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2016

Last updated: August 8, 2016

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