Shed­ding light on China’s dark-sky prob­lem

Am­a­teur stargaz­ers com­plain that their view of the uni­verse is be­ing ob­scured by the ex­ces­sive use of ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing in built-up ar­eas. Zheng Jinran re­ports from Or­dos in the In­nerMon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA - Contact the writer at zhengjin­ran@chi­nadaily.com.cn

The launch of Shen­zhou XI on Oct 17 and its sub­se­quent dock­ing with the Tian­gong II space lab has reaf­firmed the Chi­nese pub­lic’s love af­fair with space ex­plo­ration and astronomy.

In re­cent years, the na­tion’s star spot­ters have con­verged in in­creas­ing numbers on ar­eas that of­fer un­spoiled views of the galaxy, such as the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion where al­ti­tude and lack of heavy in­dus­try guar­an­tee clear night skies.

The growth of “night sky tourism” has prompted travel op­er­a­tors to pro­vide a wider range of ser­vices cater­ing to the needs of stargaz­ers. For ex­am­ple, Ctrip, one of China’s lead­ing travel ser­vice providers, of­fers more than 100 dif­fer­ent trips to dark-sky hotspots at home and abroad.

So far this year, more than 10,000 peo­ple have taken the com­pany’s star-tourism pack­ages, with the younger gen­er­a­tion — mainly peo­ple born in the 1980s— ac­count­ing for the ma­jor­ity of sales, ac­cord­ing to Shi Yud­uan, the com­pany’s chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer.

How­ever, city-bound am­a­teur as­tronomers and those on low in­comes who are un­able to af­ford trips to dark-sky spots at home and over­seas are plagued by light pol­lu­tion. A re­cent sur­vey sug­gests that for many peo­ple, a glimpse of theMilkyWay or other parts of the vis­i­ble galaxy is no longer pos­si­ble as a re­sult of the af­fects of ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing.

The New Global At­las of Light Pol­lu­tion, pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence Ad­vance, shows that 60 per­cent of peo­ple in Europe and al­most 80 per­cent of North Amer­i­can res­i­dents are un­able to see the Milky Way. More per­ti­nently for China, it also shows that light pol­lu­tion makes the nebula in­vis­i­ble to peo­ple who live in the ar­eas around Beijing andHong Kong.

Over­all, more than 33 per­cent of the Earth’s 7.4 bil­lion peo­ple can no longer see the Milky Way from their home ar­eas, making light pol­lu­tion a global is­sue, ac­cord­ing to the at­las.

Ris­ing con­cerns

Frus­trated by the bright nights in Beijing, Zhan Xiang, an en­thu­si­as­tic stargazer, drives hun­dreds of kilo­me­ters dur­ing week­ends and va­ca­tions to viewthe night sky and revel in child­hood mem­o­ries of watch­ing the stars.

“The night sky is part of our nat­u­ral her­itage. It’s a huge loss be­cause it has ex­isted since time im­memo­rial,” said the 34-year-old, who works at the Beijing Plan­e­tar­ium pop­u­lar­iz­ing astronomy among young peo­ple.

Zhan runs Moun­tainS­tar, a group that or­ga­nizes driv­ing trips and events de­signed to help more peo­ple dis­cover the “hid­den” galaxy. The group, which was founded in 2010 and has more than 100 mem­bers, is now call­ing for more at­ten­tion to be paid to the prob­lem of light pol­lu­tion.

The grow­ing pub­lic in­ter­est in the uni­verse and con­cerns about the ef­fects of ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing have been rec­og­nized by the cen­tral govern­ment and re­lated or­ga­ni­za­tions. That has led to strength­ened pro­tec­tion of the night skies in re­cent years.

For ex­am­ple, the China Bio­di­ver­sity Con­ser­va­tion and Green De­vel­op­ment Foun­da­tion’s Starry Sky Work­ing Com­mit­tee, which fo­cuses on as­tro­nom­i­cal re­search, have es­tab­lished dark-sky parks in Ti­bet’s Ngari and Nagqu pre­fec­tures in a bid to pro­tect clear night skies.

“It’s the first step in our ef­forts to pre­vent the spread of ar­ti­fi­cial light,” said Wang Xiao­hua, head of the foun­da­tion’s star pro­tec­tion branch. “But we need more to make a dif­fer­ence.” Zhan Xiang,

So far, none of China’s dark­sky parks has been cer­ti­fied by the In­ter­na­tional Dark-Sky As­so­ci­a­tion, a non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion that gives awards to “spa­ces pro­tected for nat­u­ral con­ser­va­tion that im­ple­ment good out­door light and pro­vide dark sky pro­grams for vis­i­tors”.

Wang Xiao­hua, head of the as­so­ci­a­tion’s China of­fice, said pub­lic in­ter­est is grow­ing, but has lit­tle real in­flu­ence at present, which means more gov­ern­ments should sup­port and fa­cil­i­tate ef­forts to re­duce light pol­lu­tion.

“We plan to es­tab­lish more parks and re­serves around China’s megac­i­ties, such as in the suburbs of Beijing, as a way of in­form­ing the pub­lic about light pol­lu­tion by pro­vid­ing eas­ier ac­cesses to dark sky (rather than trav­el­ing to Ti­bet and other lo­ca­tions),” Wang said.

In a wider sphere, the as­so­ci­a­tion is look­ing at ways of com­bin­ing dark-sky pro­tec­tion pro­grams and tourism. In Septem­ber, it joined with the Elion Re­sources Group, which man­ages nat­u­ral re­sources, to cre­ate a dark­sky pro­tec­tion zone in the

The night sky is part of our nat­u­ral her­itage.”

stargazer and a staff member at the Beijing Plan­e­tar­ium of the Earth’s 7.4 bil­lion peo­ple can­not see the Milky Way from their home ar­eas, ac­cord­ing to the New Global At­las of Light Pol­lu­tion, pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence Ad­vance

On Sept 24, more than 40 as­tronomers and am­a­teur stargaz­ers at a dark­sky fo­rum in Beijing fell in love with the work of Chen Jili in just four min­utes.

“I dis­play more than 10,000 im­ages in just four min­utes, demon­strat­ing splen­did move­ment and traces,” Chen said, re­fer­ring to a video of his time­lapse photos of the uni­verse, which ac­cel­er­ate the move­ments of the stars and plan­ets.

“It’s a good way of demon­strat­ing the­mys­tery of the galaxy and stars, which have in­spired nu­mer­ous mu­si­cians, artists, as­tronomers and poets, as well as the view­ers ofmy works,” said Chen, an oph­thal­mol­o­gist in Shang­hai who spends his va­ca­tions pho­tograph­ing the night sky.

To cap­ture the im­ages, Chen vis­ited places where he was guar­an­teed a Kubuqi desert, near Or­dos in the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

Miao Genxi, Elion’s vi­cepres­i­dent, said that in ad­di­tion to boost­ing dark-sky pro­tec­tion, the zone will also re­tard de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion and help pre­serve the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment through tourism.

Wang be­lieves the zone will per­form a vi­tal func­tion. “Pro­tec­tion clear view, such as the Ti­bet and In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gions, plus Sichuan prov­ince and Nepal.

It took three years for Chen to cap­ture all the im­ages needed for his video.

“It took a long time to make a very short video, but it was to­tally worth it,” he said. “When I see peo­ple shar­ing the same feel­ings I had when they look at the night sky, en­joy­ing the beauty of na­ture and pu­ri­fy­ing their minds, I re­al­ize that it really was worth it.”

Chen’swork has in­spired peo­ple to visit the same places and take sim­i­lar im­ages, es­pe­cially Ny­ingchi pre­fec­ture in Ti­bet, where he­was one of the ear­li­est pho­tog­ra­phers to take photos of the early peach blos­soms when he vis­ited the re­gion for the first time in spring 2006.

The pre­fec­ture uses Chen’s photos and videos to pro­mote lo­cal tourism and al­ways goes ahead ex­plo­ration,” he said.

Health threats

In ad­di­tion to the prob­lems faced by stargaz­ers, the at­las also sug­gests that ex­ces­sive light pol­lu­tion can have bi­o­log­i­cal con­se­quences for wildlife and even hu­man be­ings. Many sci­en­tists be­lieve ex­ces­sive use of ar­ti­fi­cial light can at­tract hun­dreds of vis­i­tors ev­ery year.

“It’s hard to buy a (rail or plane) ticket dur­ing hol­i­days be­cause peo­ple flood in to wit­ness the views, but I’m glad I could help them,” he said.

In ad­di­tion, Chen has strong bonds with Ti­betan res­i­dents with eye ail­ments.

Dur­ing a visit to Ny­ingchi in Oc­to­ber 2008, he had a se­vere at­tack of al­ti­tude sick­ness that made him vomit fre­quently. Af­ter a lo­cal res­i­dent helped him, Chen dis­cov­ered that her mother had a se­vere eye con­di­tion, so he sends her medicine reg­u­larly. He has also ar­ranged for col­leagues to pro­vide free eye clin­ics for the res­i­dents.

Even though his main in­ter­est is the sky above, Chen said it’s im­por­tant to lower one’s gaze and help peo­ple in need. of dis­rupt peo­ple’s cir­ca­dian rhythms — the “body clock” that de­ter­mines when we eat, sleep and rise — and in do­ing so can raise the risk of a wide range of ill­nesses and con­di­tions, from poor eye­sight and bad skin to breast cancer.

Many gov­ern­ments fail to re­al­ize the im­por­tance of con­trol­ling the ef­fects of light pol­lu­tion, which should be treated as se­verely as air, wa­ter and soil pol­lu­tion, ac­cord­ing toWang.

In many coun­tries, when the light emit­ted by street­lamps, homes and il­lu­mi­na­tions is thrown up into the sky, it bounces off par­ti­cles in the at­mos­phere and cre­ates a phe­nom­e­non known as “sky glow”, a dif­fuse glare that is a key fac­tor in light pol­lu­tion, Ma Yong,

“Dark nights are part of our nat­u­ral her­itage. They are beau­ti­ful and in­spir­ing. It’s a pity that many peo­ple have lost their view of the night sky in re­cent years as a re­sult of light and air pol­lu­tion. We should pro­mote pro­tec­tion ef­forts, such as set­ting up re­serves to pre­serve the night skies for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

sec­re­tary-gen­er­alofthe legal­sec­tor­com­mit­teeattheChina GreenDevel­op­men­tFoun­da­tion

which ob­scures many ce­les­tial bod­ies ex­cept for large, rel­a­tively close ob­jects, such as theMoon.

Even as­tro­nom­i­cal ob­ser­va­to­ries in or close to China’s megac­i­ties are be­ing af­fected by the ex­ces­sive use of ar­ti­fi­cial light­ing, ac­cord­ing to Zhang Chao, a writer and edi­tor at the Na­tional Jour­nal of Chi­nese Astronomy.

“For ex­am­ple, a large ob­ser­va­tory in the Chang­ping district in Beijing, which was built in 1958 and which set China’s stan­dard time for many years, had to be de­com­mis­sioned as a re­sult of the wors­en­ing light pol­lu­tion in the 1990s,” he said.

Zhang ex­plained that the ob­ser­va­tory was af­fected by light pol­lu­tion caused by the de­vel­op­ment of the nearby Hui­long­guan com­mu­nity, a large-scale res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood that houses more than 300,000 peo­ple.

He urged gov­ern­ments to take ef­fec­tive mea­sures to tackle light pol­lu­tion, and said mea­sures should be in­tro­duced im­me­di­ately, be­fore more ob­ser­va­to­ries and sci­en­tific re­search are af­fected. a Ti­betan man who guided am­a­teur as­tronomer Chen Jili, ob­serves the night sky from a glacier in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion this month.

“I have been greatly in­spired by the MilkyWay and the uni­verse. They have helped me a lot by clear­ingmy mind and el­e­vat­ingmy soul. In my paint­ings, I try to ex­press the in­ner peace and emo­tions I feel (when watch­ing the night sky). I adore na­ture and peo­ple learn­ing from na­ture.” Zhou Na, artist “Af­ter spend­ing hours work­ing in my of­fice, I like to walk around out­side and look up at the night sky, but sadly I never see the galaxy in the Xicheng district. I want to see the fab­u­lous views of stars and the galaxy that ex­isted dur­ingmy child­hood.” Zhang Yanchen, a29-year-old re­searcher­inBei­jing

CHEN JILI / FOR CHINA DAILY

Kel­sang,

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