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A Love of Darkness

BelongilBeach

In the 1930’s Byron Bay used to export sand because there’s plenty of that stuff right? Thankfully that stopped but not before the town moved onto killing whales, because there’s plenty of them right? At some point wiser heads prevailed and the towns main “export” now is culture and tourism. Those aren’t infinite either, but are far more sustainable.

There’s another untapped resource in Byron Bay that we take for granted. Billions of people will never see it, and as it dwindles worldwide the demand for it increases every day. It’s darkness.

Nestled between the glow of Ballina and Tweed Heads, Byron Bay boasts a world class dark sky that other cities can only dream of. In the USA, Arizona has even created a “Sky Village” complete with telescope equipped housing and streets without lights. New Zealand has declared an official Dark Sky Reserve near Mt Cook.

And then there’s us.

Byron Bay lies in a dark sky region second only to inland Australia.

This light pollution overlay shows that Byron Bay lies in a dark sky region second only to inland Australia. ref

I didn’t realise just how good we had it here until I tried astrophotography in the Blue Mountains, Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie, and found myself wondering why these magnificent destinations didn’t yield the same results I was getting from my backyard in the outskirts of Sunrise, Byron Bay.

“We are on the verge of losing this privilege to see the universe from our backyards and not simply because of development like the West Byron Development, but because of planning.”

Others who live here may notice a few special things about our town. For a start, there are streets with minimal street lights, and some with all wiring underground leaving the view of the sky uncompromised. The other is the sweet-spot distance from larger towns and cities leaving us with amazingly clear dark skies. Coupled with the fact we are positioned on the easternmost point of Australia, it beggars belief why there isn’t an astronomical observatory here already. In fact, there isn’t even an astronomical society here. I travel almost 2 hours to one in Queensland, and those guys travel with their imaging equipment 2 hours inland to get anything like the skies we have here.

BelongilSodiumOn

ByronSodiumOff

BEFORE / AFTER – The difference a single street light makes in Belongil

But we are on the verge of losing this privilege to see the universe from our backyards and not simply because of development like the West Byron Development, but because of planning. Pictured above, the difference a single streetlight makes in Belongil’s newest development area. I didn’t throw a rock at the streetlight to get this comparison, the light is faulty and blinks on and off all night.

It is however a “Sodium” based streetlight that gives off that familiar orange glow. Although annoying for astro-nerds and lovers of the cosmos, they are slightly more forgiving than full-spectrum white streetlights that completely erase stars from the sky. But why do we need them at all? This faulty, energy hungry streetlight does nothing useful for anyone. There is no good data to show that street lights improve safety, and all cars have headlights anyway.

Most of Byron Bay's street lights can be disabled with a laser pointer, revealing magnificent dark skies.

Most of Byron Bay’s street lights can be disabled with a laser pointer, revealing magnificent dark skies.

“Byron Bay is an astronomer’s paradise and nobody seems to realise it.”

Now here’s the odd thing. Look around Byron Bay next time you are driving around at night. Check out the streetlights – orange (sodium), white, orange, orange, white. You’ll see them all mixed up together. Orange on one side the street, then white on the other. Like nobody at council cared enough to even pick the same bulbs consistently. There is no planning.

BelongilBeach4

Perfectly dark skies at our eastern doorstep against the harsh glow of an always-on sodium streetlight. Notice also the white streetlight light pouring onto the sand.

A picture circulated around the internet recently of the view from space over Korea. (You can see it here) Western people laughed smugly to see North Korea plunged into darkness, it’s dictator selfishly depriving the populace of their right to light. I must say, I didn’t laugh. I was deeply impressed at such a practical decision from a despot while our leaders argue about whether climate change is real or not. Turning off the (useless) streetlights at night would probably reach all carbon emission reduction targets – overnight!

Image of the Galactic Core from my backyard in Byron Bay, NSW

Image of the Galactic Core from my backyard in Byron Bay, NSW

There’s a streetlight outside my house which I complained about, sincerely, to council. I can’t see the sky when it’s on. It’s white light obliterates all vision of the night sky for no good reason other than to flood my backyard with light. Thankfully, it’s possible to disable the green-pole streetlights around Byron Bay with a mere low-powered (legal) laser pointer directed at the white light sensor on the hood. I do this to image the night sky and take photos like the ones I’ve included here. Remember, *nobody* in any city or large town can take images like these.

Put simply, Byron Bay is an astronomer’s paradise and nobody seems to realise it. I imagine nobody will until, like the koala’s, it’s over.

A white streetlight on Belongil Beach obscures the night sky.

A white streetlight on Belongil Beach obscures the night sky.

Stars over Belongil Beach

Stars over Belongil Beach

Subtle tones in the sky glow over Belongil Creek.

Subtle tones in the sky glow over Belongil Creek.

Streetlights are used sparingly in Suffolk Park where relatively dark skies are still available.

Streetlights are used sparingly in Suffolk Park where relatively dark skies are still available.

BEFORE : A sodium streetlight in Belongil dominates the seeing.

BEFORE : A sodium streetlight in Belongil dominates the seeing.

AFTER : The difference a single streetlight can make.

AFTER : The difference a single streetlight can make.

The Lagoon Nebula, as shot from an urban backyard in Byron Bay.

The Lagoon Nebula, as shot from an urban backyard in Byron Bay.

This ridiculously detailed image of the milky way is a vertical panorama taken from a suburban driveway in Sunrise, Byron Bay NSW

This ridiculously detailed image of the milky way is a vertical panorama taken from a suburban driveway in Sunrise, Byron Bay NSW

When Dylan O’Donnell isn’t running his Digital Agencies DNA Digital and zen10, he is usually being a total pointdexter and pursuing his love of nature, technology, art, music and their intersections. Although having lived in Byron Bay for 5 years now, he can barely swim let alone surf so has forgone all dreams of being one of the cool kids to focus on being a completely eccentric father. His photography often has scientific themes with astrophotography, wildlife and biodiversity or even lasers, chemistry and other experiments. He has has work published by various news outlets including NASA.

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