You can look a lot of places for your next outdoors adventure. Or you can, well, look up.
There is wonder there, said Valerie Stimac, author of the new book “Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism” (Lonely Planet).
Northerners are well acquainted with night sky phenomenon like the northern lights. They beckon photographers and adventure-seekers, who hit the road in the middle of the night and fill up social media feeds with dreamlike imagery.
Fringe activity? Not so much anymore, said Stimac, who said leaving town to view dark places — “astrotourism” — is going mainstream.
“People are interested. They are willing to travel,” she said, the solar eclipse in August 2017 being a prime example. A University of Michigan study estimated 215 million Americans viewed the eclipse, and another calculated that as many as 7 million traveled some distance to get into the path of totality.
Stimac had bet her money on space tourism that year. She had a website (spacetourismguide.com) and wrote on the topic, but astrotourism has been an offshoot that has gained traction. With plenty of source material, including that from the International Dark-Sky Association and light-pollution maps on the internet, Stimac has woven together a book that is not so much about destination as it is about experience: How to stargaze. Where to look. And maybe most importantly, why.
“I am trying to get people to realize that there is this very meaningful experience that we’re missing out on and it’s worth traveling for.
“You don’t have to get people to the darkest skies to care about dark skies. You just need to get them to a dark-enough sky,” she said.
In a conversation, Stimac talked about the merits of including dark places as natural experiences, too. The excerpts below were edited for length and clarity.
Why is it so important that people embrace the idea that stargazing is “our heritage,” as you write?
The night sky is one of the few unifying features of human history. As long as there have been humans on Earth, there has been a night sky. And it’s the same night sky, so we can think back millennia, and the people who were living on our planet had pretty much the same view that we have today. From my perspective, that is an incredibly unique part of our daily lives that people overlook. The deep, meaningful feelings that we get when we look at the night sky were probably experienced by our vastly distant ancestors. We know they may even have felt more deep feelings, and the sky had more meaning to them because it was the only thing they could see at night. It helped determine all of their activities during the day. The sun and the moon and the movement of planets were very important to social systems across the world. It’s kind of hard to deny that the night sky has had an incredible impact on human history.
There was a stat in the book — 80% of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies. That’s staggering.
It really is. The saddest part is that the vast majority of that 80 % have no idea what the night sky can look like. They’ve never seen an uninterrupted, unpolluted night sky. The vast majority of people don’t know the difference on the Bortle dark sky scale (which measures the night sky’s brightness). We don’t have the nuances unless you’re trained scientists to tell that this is a slightly darker place than that place. But if you’ve never seen the Milky Way or a couple of constellations, you don’t know what you’re missing. Up to 80 % of people are missing that.
How do you think about Minnesota and its dark-sky community?
My parents actually live in Grand Rapids, and every time I visit it’s cloudy. So I haven’t seen Minnesota’s northern dark skies. I am aware that the northern third of the state has much better opportunities.
Even if the reader hasn’t thought about an astrotourism trip, you give a lot for people to think about. Was that by design?
It was. This book is meant to be many people’s introduction to this field. We are aiming to inspire. We might drive them to these exact locations, but maybe they go home and Google “stargazing spots near me.” And maybe Google serves them up local astronomy clubs and observatories and things they didn’t know were there. It’s just meant to be inspiring and thought-provoking and hopefully motivating to travel. But that could be local travel. That’s still a powerful force for good in educating people about the night sky.
What’s one of the coolest stargazing experiences you’ve recently had?
In March, I flew down to Chile. It’s the end of the summer season, and I went to the Elqui Valley, which is in the book. I had already written about it. I basically did all my own research for my trip, and used all of my research and own knowledge for the book. It was fascinating because you can see the southern night sky and the Magellanic Clouds and other half of the Milky Way. What got me is the constellations are upside-down. And so I see Orion — a very popular winter, night-sky constellation — and I could not figure out why it looked wrong. It took 15 minutes for me to realize I was viewing it upside-down. To still feel like you can discover new things about the sky even after you’ve seen it, is what I love. There are always going to be new experiences. I love that I got tricked by physics. It happens.
You write about dark-sky preservation. Is that realistic?
There are compromises that are going to have to be made. I am not sure we can ever in my lifetime remove light pollution. The best case studies are going to be made in the midsize cities. Tucson (Ariz.) is the epicenter for the dark-sky preservation movement. It is one of the biggest cities in the country, and it has managed to get all of its light fixtures and ordinances set to reduce light pollution. So it’s possible.
It requires a conscientious effort on the part of city administrators because they are replacing lights, they are not installing new ones. And getting private citizens on board — you need to make sure people understand the value. We’re seeing some great (light pollution) research on the impact both on animal biology and plant biology, but also our own.