Cape Hatteras is one of the best places in the world to stargaze, experts say
HATTERAS VILLAGE, N.C.
The sky over the Hatteras beach darkened, leaving only the white foam of ocean breakers barely visible.
Then Jupiter appeared bright and large to the west, and reddish Mars came out to the south. Saturn arrived left of Mars. Next, Antares shined as the brightest star within the constellation Scorpius.
Each emerged imperceptibly from the darkness. By 10 p.m., the Milky Way glowed in a long, faint swath almost to the horizon, and thousands of other stars sparkled over the dark sea.
This heavenly view is difficult to glimpse in more urban areas. But Cape Hatteras National Seashore is one of the darkest and best places for stargazing along the East Coast, park ranger Carolyn Campbell said. Now, it is on track to become one of 67 places worldwide, including 37 parks, recognized by the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association.
Getting that designation is a long, difficult process that could cost the park $70,000, Campbell said. Rangers have to convert about 350 outdoor lights within the park to softer beams that shine downward.
Campbell is seeking community support for similar changes to outdoor street lights in nearby villages. She plans to work with property managers and real estate agents to educate renters on turning off unnecessary interior lights after dark.
“People don’t realize what one simple light can do,” she said.
Artificial light can confuse freshly hatched sea turtles, causing them to crawl away from the safety of the ocean. Light pollution can negatively affect migrating birds and the croaking habits of frogs, said John Barentine, program manager for the International Dark-Sky Association. Humans exposed to too much light at night can develop a disruption to their circadian rhythm, risking psychological and behavioral problems, he said.
“It’s not just about the dark sky,” Barentine said.
Even from the Hatteras beach, stars to the north are not as visible. They’re obscured by lights at the ferry docks and the outdoor lamps of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. The interior lights of nearby three-story beach houses gleam over the dunes.
There are only a few dozen places left in the east that would meet the criteria set by the dark-sky association, Barentine said. Parks that do qualify and make the list benefit from increased visitation in the off-season from astrotourism.
“People will travel great distances to see a natural sky,” he said.
One supporter, Belinda Willis of Hatteras Village, is spreading the word. At Lee Robinson General Store, which she owns with her husband, Virgil, she places night-sky charts on the counter and stargazing notices on the bulletin board. Later, customers return with an enthusiastic report, she said.
“Some people who come in here have never seen the night sky,” she said. “They’re in awe.”
The store lights go off after the 10:30 p.m. closing, she said, and its street lights project downward to protect the darkness. Willis helped start the first Hatteras Village stargazing event on a cold night this past February. Another is planned for next February.
Gerry Lebing of Waves spends most evenings in his backyard with a 35-foot-tall observatory.
“A lot of locals who live here year-round are avid stargazers,” he said.
He estimates the community used to be a Class 6 on the Bortle Scale of light pollution, about the same as any suburban area in America. A number 1 rating is darkest and a 9 is like New York City, Lebing said.
The local electric cooperative replaced the glowing street lights near Lebing’s house with LED lights covered with hoods that direct the beams downward. The neighborhood’s Bortle Scale rating is now closer to 5. On some winter nights during the new moon, Lebing said he can see the Andromeda Galaxy with binoculars.
“It made a phenomenal impact,” he said.
National Park Service experts measured darkness in different areas of Cape Hatteras National Seashore using scales including the Bortle Scale and the zenith sky brightness, Barentine said. The park rated a Bortle Class 3 just north of Hatteras Village.
On the zenith scale, which measures the effects of light at the zenith, or the night’s darkest spot directly overhead, Ocracoke rated a very dark 21.47. That’s a good indicator for the dark-sky designation, Barentine said.
The association will use the light measuring scales over the entire park before awarding the designation. The award comes with levels of gold, silver and bronze. Cape Hatteras has remote places that qualify as gold, but when combined with lights from villages, it would likely be reduced to an overall grade of silver, Barentine said.
“That says our stars are very visible, and we’re going to keep them that way,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.