A fortuitous encounter

The country’s journey to earning dark-sky status began somewhat serendipitously. In 2017, amateur astronomers Richard and Gendie Somerville-Ryan led an initiative to achieve dark-sky sanctuary status for their home island of Great Barrier, which sits off New Zealand’s east coast.

“So we finished that and we were recovering,” Richard Somerville-Ryan told Mongabay, “and we told our travel agent we wanted a holiday somewhere and she could surprise us —  and we went in and discovered we were flying to Niue the next day.”

Niue is a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, and it sits around 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) to the larger country’s northeast. Its nearest neighbor, the Tongan island of Neiafu, is more than 400 km (250 mi) away. This isolation, coupled with its low resident population of only 1,626 people and relatively basic level of infrastructure, makes Niue’s night skies particularly spectacular.

Impressed, the Somerville-Ryans met with Bollen and shared their story. “She asked us if we could do the same thing for Niue,” Richard Somerville-Ryan said, “and after another visit, we did some basic assessments and decided we could.”

So the three of them embarked on an 18-month project to apply for dark-sky status with the IDA. This involved gaining support from local elders; tracking light levels across the island; running community education workshops; and collaborating with the Niuean government and the New Zealand High Commission to replace both street and domestic lighting with dimmer, more orange-hued LED bulbs than the glaring blue ones most people used.

“You could probably only do it in a small place like Niue,” Richard Somerville-Ryan said. “Go out with a whole bundle of lightbulbs and go to everyone’s place and just literally change all the lights — which is essentially what we did.” That might not seem like such a significant step, but according to Mayer Pinto, the marine scientist, “simply changing LED lights to lighting options with warmer wavelength light is already a big step in minimizing light pollution and disruption to local wildlife.”

Community perspectives

For residents of “the rock” — the affectionate name Niueans call the 261-square-kilometer (101-square-mile) coral slab they live on — marine and terrestrial sanctuaries are a familiar concept. Forty percent of the country’s 390,000-km2 (150,580-mi2) exclusive economic zone and 23% of its land are designated as protected areas.

But a sky sanctuary? “When we first started talking about it, everyone thought we were a little bit odd,” Bollen said. “They couldn’t quite come to terms with why we were so excited about this, because they just take this sky for granted, because it’s never been anything else.”

However, when the team shared images of less-starry skyscapes in cities like Auckland, “people began to appreciate that what they had was something special,” Richard Somerville-Ryan said.

The team trained a number of locals as “dark-sky ambassadors,” who can now operate telescopes for tourists and share knowledge about astronomy from both indigenous and western perspectives.

“The way-finders of Polynesia were famous for using the stars to navigate their routes between the islands,” Bollen said, “and the moon was used very specifically for planting.” Those practices have “fallen into the depths of history a little bit,” she said, “so it’s really nice that people are being reminded of how their forefathers used nature to get the best out of the country.”

It will be up to Niueans to decide how much of those stories and traditions they choose to share with curious tourists, Richard Somerville-Ryan said.

It will also be important to ensure that the need to keep light pollution at low levels doesn’t impinge on economic development, Bollen said. That’s been a key critique of other dark-sky conservation projects in the past. In her 2017 essay “The Trouble with Darkness: NASA’s Suomi Satellite Images of Earth at Night,” environmental historian Sara Pritchard warned against “neo-colonial approaches to the conservation of natural night-sky brightness” that, like many 20th-century approaches to biodiversity conservation, don’t make space for communities in more pristine areas to modernize as they see fit.

So far, the dark-sky nation status has entailed a relatively simple shift for Niue’s residents, which has been enabled through education, awareness, and access to softer-toned LED lights.

“Everyone is so proud of the fact that they’ve been able to achieve this,” Bollen said. “Just by changing the lightbulbs out under their veranda, they have contributed to making their country something very special.”

Monica Evans is a freelance writer based in Aotearoa/New Zealand, who loves exploring the relationships between social and environmental issues. She has a master’s degree in development studies from Victoria University of Wellington. Find her at monicaevans.org.


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Kyba, C. C., Kuester, T., Sánchez de Miguel, A., Baugh, K., Jechow, A., Hölker, F., … Guanter, L. (2017). Artificially lit surface of Earth at -19.056030, -169.865641 increasing in radiance and extent. Science Advances3(11), e1701528. doi:10.1126/sciadv.1701528

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