Canada home to world’s largest dark-sky preserve

The Northern Lights over Wood Buffalo National Park. CNW Group/Parks Canada

TORONTO – Imagine the entire country of Switzerland in darkness, the sky alight with the shimmering curtain of green aurorae and billions of stars.

Unless a power outage occurs in Switzerland, this is unlikely to happen. However, if you’d like to experience something like that, on just such a grand scale, you can – right here at home.

On Aug. 2, Wood Buffalo National Park, which stretches across the Northwest Territories and Alberta, was designated a Dark-Sky Preserve by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The park, which is 44,807 square kms, is the largest in Canada and is larger than Switzerland. It is also the second-largest protected area in the world, following Greenland. It is the largest dark-sky preserve in the world.

Due to the location far from city lights and the size of the park, Mike Couvrette, Chairperson of the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society (TAWPAS) and Tim Gauthier of Parks Canada, discussed getting a designation for Wood Buffalo National Park. It was the perfect area.

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“I originally heard about the dark-sky program back in 2010 or so when [there was] an annoucement about the Kejimkujik National Park… And I thought, if they can do it in the middle of Nova Scotia, why can’t we do it here?”

The skies are so pristine at Wood Buffalo National Park that even measuring the darkness — which is needed in order to get dark-sky preserve designation — proved challenging. Why? The night sky was illuminated with incredible aurorae which didn’t allow the instrument that measures the lack of light to get an accurate reading.

Aurorae, or the Northern Lights, are colourful displays that occur when particles from the sun interact with the Earth’s magnetic field.

Couvrette helped form TAWPAS, located in Fort Smith, NWT, in 2011. From there, the organization lent its support to the dark-sky preserve application, another step in the process.

Getting the designation didn’t happen overnight. According to Mike Keizer, External Relations Manager, Southwest NWT Field Unit for Parks Canada, it took almost three years from the idea to completion.

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There are currently 14 other dark-sky preserves in Canada.

Several of the surrounding towns have also shown an interest in participating in dark-sky preserve. Fort Smith and Fort McMurray, Alta, are just two towns that are interested in using the park as part of their tourism programs.

The park holds its second annual Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival from Aug. 23-25. The festival features overnight camping, astronomical presentations and several marine conservation areas.

The park’s designation also helps wildlife. It makes towns reconsider lighting options, reducing light pollution and preserving natural habitats.

“We have bats, we have nighthawks, we have got owls and a number of animals that are fairly nocturnal in their lifestyle…so that protects the ecology of the region,” said Keizer.

“We become the ambassadors of dark skies…talking about different kinds of lighting,” said Keizer. “It opens an avenue to talk about those things. And to say to the different groups around the park, ‘Can you think of lighting when you do that development?’ or ‘Can you think about [the park] to minimize your lighting footprint on the Earth?'”
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The huge park doesn’t get a lot of visitors, but Keizer hopes that changes with the designation. It offers camping facilities and a view of the night sky that most people have never seen.

“I came from the city…I don’t remember ever seeing the Milky Way, but I see it up here. It is an incredibly beautiful dark sky,” said Keizer. He also said that it can serve as a romantic destination.

“There is nothing more romantic than sitting under the aurorae holding the hand of the one you love.”

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