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Star Gazing On The Buffalo River

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

The Buffalo River National Park is trying to go dark this year. What does that mean for all you river rats and waterfall chasers? It means now you will get to enjoy that beautiful night sky while staying in the region.

Arkansas's First International Dark Sky Park!

The Buffalo National River is an Arkansas spectacle, bringing in more than a million and a half visitors a year. Its traditional attractions have made it a destination for generations. But now is offering something new. "If you want to see deep sky objects you've got to be where there's a good black sky," said a local amateur astronomer.

The night we came to visit was shaping up to be one of the best to put the telescopes to work. 

As the sun sets, the barrier of lights blocking much of the world from experiencing the universe is lifted. Half the park is revealed after dark. And it is only getting darker as the Buffalo is applying to be an International Dark Sky Park.

  You may have noticed some changes to the restroom and facility lighting at Buffalo National River. The park is in the process of applying for status as an International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). To obtain this status it is necessary for the park to adopt responsible outdoor lighting practices that will protect the park's naturally dark skies and serve as a teaching example for our local communities and visitors on how and why night skies can be protected as a valuable natural resource. Parks can be more than just places to take a hike or pitch a tent. They can be places to renew your spirit and find solitude, through communing with nature. The park's forests and free-flowing waters provide that by day, but its natural unpolluted skies can do that by night as well. The night sky has been drastically impacted by man in recent decades with natural nighttime skies becoming as endangered as wilderness and free-flowing streams. However, the wonderful thing is that we can easily reverse this with responsible use of artificial light!

The Buffalo National River can be a place where you, your friends, and your family can come to relax and renew. A place of wilderness, just outside the reaches of our modern society, during the day and night. So protecting our small piece of the natural sky is something that the park is striving to do. By bringing attention to the parks increasingly rare natural night sky resource, and through new programming and educational activities focused on that resource, the park hopes to extract a whole new value for our patrons and the public in general.

There are 18 other National Park Service sites with IDSP designation, we hope that Buffalo National River will be the first park in Arkansas to achieve this status! Visit the National Park Service's Night Skies website to learn more about the criticalness of protecting our night skies.

Effects of Light Pollution

Light pollution wastes money and energy and negatively impacts natural ecosystems and even human health. The "diurnal cycle" of night and day is hardwired into the biological clocks of every living thing on the surface of the planet. Our increased light footprint affects things that you may not have ever realized so our use of artificial light should be strategic and mindful.

Did you know that female sea turtles are deterred from nesting in artificially lit areas? Even more troubling is the fact that when baby sea turtles hatch on the beach they look for the glow of light over the ocean to help them find their way back to the water. Artificial lights on the shore can disorient them, leading the baby sea turtles to become stranded on land.

For an example that impacts wildlife at the river you need to look no further than the friendly firefly. They usher in summertime evenings and provide us with simple outdoor entertainment, but artificial light has been shown to disrupt their ability to reproduce. Male fireflies use species-specific flashing patterns to attract females. The females flash back in response to the males. Scientists have conducted studies in which they exposed fireflies to artificial light and found that the females did not flash back as often, leading to less mating.

Artificial light at night even impacts when plants bloom and go dormant, where bats will travel, whether zooplankton will rise in a water column to feed off of phytoplankton, interferes with bird migration, and amphibian mating.

This year Buffalo National River looks forward to hosting two star parties at Tyler Bend in cooperation with the Central Arkansas Astronomical Societyand the Sugar Creek Astronomical Society. These two volunteer groups provide outstanding subject-matter experts and telescopes for the public to use.

Additionally, there will be a variety of ranger-led night sky programs offered at Buffalo Point this summer. Check the park's calendar of events for upcoming programs or call the Buffalo Point Ranger Station at 870-449-4311 for more information.

The International Dark-Sky Association

The International Dark-Sky Park Association (IDA) was founded in 1988. The IDA is a world leader and advocate for our night skies. They strive to educate the public on responsible lighting. There are now over 50 IDA Dark Sky Parks (IDSP) world-wide. According to the IDA these are places that have proven that they possess an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. Visit the IDA for more information and to learn about the IDSP sites.

The Arkansas Chapter of the IDA has been working closely with the park in developing our lighting program and IDA application. Please visit the Arkansas Natural Sky Association website to learn more.

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