Around the world, artificial light pollution is gradually lighting dark night skies filled with stars.
But the West Australian Government has indicated it plans to regard its night sky as an asset and shield it from artificial lighting in a move welcomed by stargazers.
A draft policy to help reduce light pollution has recently been released by the WA Planning Commission, describing it as “an orange smog which obscures the night sky, as artificial and natural light reflect off moisture and dust particles in the sky”
As part of the strategy, new planning plans, including projects and subdivisions, will need to discuss five main principles:
Light spill removal. Many lamps point upwards, projecting light pollution into the night sky.
Using lamps that are light efficient
Ensuring the lights do not target reflective surfaces
Using white, warm colours. While LED lights are more energy effective, bright white LEDs have more blue light and a higher color temperature that can impact wildlife.
Areas around the astro-tourism sites listed, including observatories, will be protected and sufficient tourist facilities would be provided.
The policy document said the application of the principles of the dark sky was “generally cost-neutral” with several advantages, including:
Reduced use of electricity and prices for lighting
Better observations from astronomy
Nocturnal flora and fauna protection
The stargazing tourism sector has hailed the change as a major acknowledgment that the dark sky of WA is an asset to be secured.
Tourists abroad ‘on the edge of their seats’
Astrotourism WA’s founder and chief executive, Carol Redford, said the draft proposal was a “amazing start” addressing two major causes of light pollution: the artificial light spill and the lighting color temperature.
Although rural WA was fortunate because of its isolation and sparsely populated towns to have a relatively dark night sky, Ms Redford said a lot of its light pollution came from street lighting and mining sites.
But she hoped that the policy would help minimize or even decrease light pollution to allow future generations to enjoy stargazing while encouraging a new astrotourism industry.
“It will take a long time to get the Milky Way back for Perth,” she said.
“Imagine if you could see the Milky Way above Perth again.”
Perth photographer and astrotourism tour guide Michael Goh is one person who is fortunate enough to see the Milky Way on a regular basis.
Although the Milky Way can’t be clearly seen with the naked eye from Perth, Mr Goh said it was captured by photographers with the help of their powerful lenses.
But stargazers are in hot demand for locations outside the metropolitan area, such as the Pinnacles and Exmouth, where a rare hybrid solar eclipse will be seen in 2023.
In recent years, Mr Goh said that demand for his astrophotography tours had “just grown and grown” including from keen international stargazers ready to visit as soon as the borders of Australia reopened.
“I have people from overseas hanging on the edge of their seats, waiting to get in,” he said.
The strategy of the WA Government is the latest official initiative in Australia to combat light pollution, with many other states, including New South Wales and Queensland, opting to tackle the problem in various ways.
The Australian government issued guidelines last year to control the effect of artificial light on wildlife, acknowledging that the use of artificial light at night has risen worldwide by around two percent a year.
“[Hatchling] marine turtles may not be able to find the ocean when beaches are lit, and fledgling seabirds may not take their first flight if their nesting habitat never becomes dark,” the guidelines said.
“Tammar wallabies exposed to artificial light have been shown to delay reproduction and clownfish eggs incubated under constant light do not hatch.”
Marnie Ogg, member of the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance, is delighted that the benefits of tackling light pollution are starting to be realised by governments.
“One of the benefits with Western Australia doing it this way is that it’s actually bringing in the community,” she said.
“Giving people opportunities with it rather than just giving people guidelines and saying you must abide by these rules.”
Local councils with a mantle to take up
If and when final guidelines are published, WA’s local governments will likely be the best observers of the effects and impacts of a dark sky planning strategy.
This will include individuals such as Nils Hay, Mingenew Shire’s chief executive, which is approximately 400 km north of Perth and home to 460 individuals, as well as being a magnet for wildflower enthusiasts for several months a year.
Like many people with small populations and little light pollution in WA’s Wheatbelt cities, Mr Hay is keen to capitalize on the local economy’s potential for astrotourism.
He said, “Tourists can look at wildflowers in the day and stargaze at night,”
But while supporting the focus of the policy on astrotourism, he flagged possible questions about how local municipalities could track lighting conditions and implement them.
Mr. Hay said the best way to minimize light pollution in his shire would be to adjust its street lighting and use low-temperature LEDs for Western Power, the state-owned entity that operates one portion of the WA energy network.