Ontario's Torrance Barrens

Ontario's Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Reserve

Written by: Martin Mittelstaedt Environment Reporter
Front-page article in Globe & Mail, July 2, 1999

With its brilliant display of planets and stars, the night sky can be the most beautiful sight on Earth. But itís fading fast. In heavily populated areas the increasing glare from artificial lighting and the haze generated by air pollution have robbed the heavens of much of their glory.

"Itís possible for people to grow up, even to adulthood, without ever having seen the beauty of the night sky," laments astronomy writer Terence Dickinson.

The situation has caused so much concern that the Ontario government has decided to do something unique: It has created the worldís first sky preserve.

Protection of the night sky has been declared one of the official goals of the Torrance Barrens Conservation Reserve, which is being created from a 1,990-hectare tract of Crown land just west of Gravenhurst and south of Lake Muskoka. The "dark-sky preserve" will be almost free of light pollution even though the area is within easy reach of Southern Ontarioís most highly developed areas.

Last week, the Ministry of Natural Resources endorsed a statement of conservation aims for the barrens that included stargazing. The statement noted that "the absence of light pollution in the night skies over the reserve is remarkable." Although the statement of conservation interest remains open to public review, this process is not expected to change the reserveís dark-sky designation. The site is even more attractive because lands to the north are owned by the Crown and free of development, and areas to the south are also scheduled to be placed in a new conservation reserve, factors that bode well for maintaining its pristine nights. Although there is tourist development in the area, municipal governments are expected to take steps to curtail the use of poor-quality night lighting in a five- to eight-kilometre band around the reserve. The barrens themselves are an expanse of relatively undisturbed, flat bedrock, and trees are stunted because of the lack of soil. Both the flatness and small trees appeal to stargazers, who prefer unobstructed views of the horizon. The reserve is the brainchild of Peter Goering, a retired Toronto architect and amateur astronomer. Last year he approached a provincial panel studying plans for future parks.

Underwater parks didnít exist a few decades ago, he noted, but now are common because of the interest shown by divers. "I said: ĎWhat about the possibility of a sky park, because itís so difficult to see the sky for urban people?í" The idea took off, thanks to the provincial governmentís interest and support from the Muskoka Heritage Foundation, a preservation group on whose board Mr. Goering sits.

Mr. Goering said he has watched the intensity of the night fade from excessive lighting, which he calls "a darned nuisance." He used to be able to see the night sky clearly near Toronto, but now must go farther and farther to avoid the cityís glow. "Iím not a professional astronomer. Iím an amateur, but one of the wonderful aspects of going north of the city was to be able to see the stars," he said.

This weekend, Mr. Goering will describe the campaign to create the night reserve at a Royal Astronomical Society of Canada conference being held at the University of Toronto.

Although some cities have taken steps to reduce light pollution, particularly around observatories, the idea of preserving the night sky in a park had not yet been explored.

"Itís fair to say itís the first one like this anywhere," said David Crawford, executive director of the International Dark-Sky Association to Tucson, Ariz. The group was formed in 1988 to raise awareness of light pollution and the harm it does to stargazing.

"Light pollution has come in a great rush over the last decades. Itís created a real wash of glare for everybody," Mr. Crawford said. What irks sky watchers is the design of much modern outdoor lighting, which allows light to escape in all directions, including upward. Placing bulbs deep within conical fixtures, would focus light downward to where it is needed, they say, and would require less energy.

Another improvement would be to put outdoor security lighting on motion sensors, so it would be triggered only when needed. Municipalities around the Torrance Barrens have been asked to consider taking such measures to help preserve the night sky - a step endorsed last month by the Township of Muskoka Lakes, which borders the site.

Mr. Dickinson, an amateur astronomer and the editor of Sky-News magazine, said better knowledge of the night sky might help Canadians avoid a situation of the sort Californians experienced a few years ago.

After a major earthquake knocked the power out, residents of the state began to see the night sky again. Many called the police and radio stations, Mr. Dickinson said. They were worried "about the strange appearance of stars and a misty band [in the sky] that must have been caused" by the quake.

"Large numbers of people have never seen a pristine sky and donít know what it looks like, which is truly astonishing," he said. Mr. Dickinson supports the reserve idea, saying the night sky is much like an endangered species in need of protection from modern lift. "The fact is that now, almost everywhere you go, night has to be eradicated in order for people to feel comfortable."

View the Macleans Magazine May 22nd article


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