The very essence of a hiking trail, canoe route or scenic vista can impose questions to outdoor enthusiasts in Ontario about the value of these places as natural resources. It is often a first instinct to think about natural environments in terms of trip times, environmental conservation values, and safety measures. But as the sun sets day after day, not all natural resources disappear to the naked eye, especially in locations situated in central and northern Ontario. Pending the atmospheric conditions are right, a single glance up into the sky at nighttime can trigger a sense of discovery in what is known as one of the most wondrous resources available to all living things on the planet: The night sky.
As dusk falls on campgrounds, lakes, and properties of the Couchiching Conservancy, stepping outside can be an ideal way to explore extra-terrestrial marvels from right here on Earth, and can provide people with several opportunities. A simple evening relaxing beneath the stars is powerful educational opportunity. Gazing above at special features in the sky, such as the moon, planets, stars, meteor showers and the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), is a fantastic chance for people to start, or to build on their appreciation for natural phenomenon occurring in the solar system and beyond. Further, the night sky provides vital services to wildlife, contributing to healthy ecosystems.
Through resource appreciation, citizens can help protect the quality of night skies in Ontario. When people develop connections to the night sky, like knowing a variety of constellations, or known grouping of stars, they’re more likely to care for how well they are visible to the naked eye. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) has recognized this and designated a few areas in Ontario as Dark Sky Preserves. These are areas which artificial lighting is not visible, which means light pollution is not an issue, like in the densely populated regions of southern Ontario. Thus, the stars and other features in the night sky are highly visible if not impacted by cloud cover and other atmospheric factors. In late summer, fall, and winter, the Aurora Borealis (northern lights) can be seen ‘dancing’ in the night sky, showcasing a colourful display of moving light. In summary, the northern lights are a result of electrical particles from the sun that interact with the magnetic poles of planet Earth; in this case the North Pole, resulting in a magnificent light show. Experiences like seeing the northern lights for the first time are powerful memories that guide people to appreciate the night sky over their lifetime.
Light pollution causes poor visibility of the stars and other unique features visible in the sky at night, impacting the quality of astronomers’ experiences, but more than humans suffer from these effects. Plants and animals are dependent on the natural rhythm of light and dark cycles because they have adapted this way for billions of years; it’s in their DNA. Daily, periods of light on Earth characterize a species ability to reproduce, sleep, migrate, and keep themselves healthy. For example some birds migrate distances totalling thousands of kilometres relying on moon and sunlight to guide the way. If light pollution attributed to cities and populated human areas is impacting the intensity of light coming from the night sky, these natural navigation aids become less helpful for bird species. Consequences include migrating too early or too late, which, due to variables such as climate, may threaten the survival of these animals. This is just one example of how animals, too, are reliant on the night sky as a natural resource.
Billions of individuals on planet Earth the value the night sky for many reasons. Whether they see educational opportunities while observing the Milky Way, seek sheer wonder through displays of the Northern Lights, or helping to protect bird species that are guided by the light emitted from the night sky. By participating in any level of night sky activity, whether at home, or while visiting a Couchiching Conservancy property, individuals can naturally become stewards, or protectors of this valuable natural resource.
Also published in the Orillia Packet & Times: A healthy look at the night sky