New Zealand reveals dark sky reserve
10 Jun 2012
When the stars come out tonight (10.06.2012) above New Zealand, the skies will have an extra sparkle as the world’s newest dark sky reserve is revealed.
The news that New Zealand’s Mackenzie Basin has been designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR) is expected to bring many more stargazers from around the world to the Canterbury region and significantly boost local tourism.
The announcement made at the opening of the Third International Starlight Conference - a meeting of astronomers, lighting engineers and tourism specialists which is taking place at Tekapo, in the Mackenzie Basin - confirms New Zealand’s place as one of the world’s top stargazing destinations.
And, the creation of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve - which includes the lakeside town of Tekapo, Mt Cook Village, Twizel and the highest peaks of the Southern Alps - is also lofty recognition of a community-inspired initiative that has been working towards this goal since 2006.
Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve
Covering 4300sq km over Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park and the neighbouring Mackenzie Basin, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve forms the world’s largest such reserve.
It is also the first awarded the top gold level status - recognising the quality of the almost light-pollution-free skies - and the first such reserve in the southern hemisphere.
"To put it simply, it is one of the best stargazing sites on Earth," according to executive director Bob Parks of the International Dark-Sky Association - an international movement based in Arizona and dedicated to protecting dark skies.
The Mackenzie region has long been recognised as one of the best sites for viewing and researching the southern sky because of the high number of clear nights throughout the year, the stability and transparency of the atmosphere.
The location also experiences continuous year-round views of the Magellanic Clouds - satellite galaxies to the Milky Way that are only visible in the southern hemisphere.
Honourable Margaret Austin, who chairs New Zealand’s Starlight Working Party which has worked since 2006 to achieve formal international dark sky recognition, says the night sky in the Mackenzie Basin is a truly magnificent sight that is particularly fascinating for overseas visitors who live in areas where light pollution masks the stars from view.
"This is a truly exceptional environment, landscape and night sky that we want to protect and promote," Mrs Austin said.
Park in the sky
The move to apply for dark sky status was first prompted by a warning of increasing light pollution at New Zealand's principal astronomy research site, the Mt John Observatory which is located above Lake Tekapo and operated by the University of Canterbury.
Fortunately light pollution in the Tekapo area has been strictly controlled since 1981 by a Mackenzie District Council lighting ordinance but with this form of light pollution fast becoming a world-wide problem, a group of conservationists had the idea of creating a 'park in the sky' to better protect the area's precious night asset.
As a result of their efforts, the Mackenzie District Council introduced ground-breaking local resource controls on lighting use, such as restricting light pollution with downward beams and a no-spillage policy. Resource management also restricts floodlighting from sunset until 11pm.
The Mackenzie Mt Cook region - an iconic South Island alpine landscape - welcomes around one million visitors annually, attracted to the spectacular mountains, glacial lakes and a dry stable climate that encourages year-round outdoor pursuits such as walking, cycling, boating, and fishing. It’s also a hub for more seasonal alpine and snow sports.
Apart from a scientific facility, Tekapo’s Mt John has developed into New Zealand’s main astro-tourism destination, and each year thousands of visitors enjoy the night and day-time Earth & Sky experiences at the observatory.
The observatory at Mt John has five telescopes including New Zealand's biggest which measures 1.8m across and can observe 50 million stars. For visitors, it is one of the world’s more easily accessible observatory sites.
Nearby Aoraki Mount Cook village has a full-dome digital planetarium offering a variety of shows, expert astronomy guides and powerful telescopes zoomed in on the planets, star clusters and distant galaxies.
Christchurch & Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter says the dark sky designation is "fantastic news".
"It’s wonderful to finally have recognition in both national and global terms for this premium asset. It puts the Mackenzie Basin on the map as a destination of international significance and sends a clear message to people that if they want the ultimate dark sky experience then this is the place to come.
"We’re anticipating seeing a significant increase in visitors to the Mackenzie as a result of this designation because there is enormous interest in the stars and this is one of the few places left in the world where you can really appreciate the natural beauty of the sky,’’ Mr Hunter said.
International dark sky places
The new reserve is the world’s third International Dark Sky Reserve category, following on from Canada’s Mont Megantic, and the UK’s Exmoor National Park.
Since the New Zealand reserve was officially recognised, a fourth dark sky park with gold rating has been announced in Namibia. Another 14 places worldwide have received lesser ‘dark sky’ ratings.
The announcement was made during at the Third International Starlight Conference (10 - 13 June 2012) which has brought 62 delegates, including 19 leading international figures, to Tekapo.
The conference was opened by Ariki Sir Tumu Te Heuheu, Paramount Chief of Tuwharetoa (Maori tribe), and former Chair of the World Heritage Committee.
The Starlight Working Party is also involved in a long-running process with UNESCO that could eventually see the dark sky reserve designated as a World Heritage Starlight Reserve.
Backgrounder: The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve
Astro-tourism: Stargazing in New Zealand
Christchurch - Canterbury region
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