Nepal’s other attraction: the night sky

In 2016 National Geographic selected the Sagarmatha National Park as the top six destinations to watch the night sky. Above, light from Gokyo guest houses compete with starlight. Photo: JEFF DAI/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

In 2016, National Geographic listed Sagarmatha National Park as one of the world’s five best stargazing sites on the planet. The magazine used a photograph by Jeff Dai of Gokyo by night, showing stars but also the glare of lights from guest houses (above).

The publicity drew attention to what mountaineers, trekkers and Himalayan villagers had known all along – that the region below Mt Everest has great astrotourism potential because it is located far from any big city, and it is above the dust and haze.

“Our remoteness is our resource,” says tourism expert  Gyan Nyaupane, a professor at Arizona State University. “Instead of trying to be like the West, we should preserve what we have, including the darkness of our night sky. If we want quality tourism, we must determine what we can offer that is better than others can. We must create a niche for ourselves.”

Indeed, Nepal’s darkness could be its unique selling point. To protect the Himalayan night sky from light pollution, tourism experts say, the country should take steps to limit illumination and design outdoor light fixtures in such a way that they do not outshine the constellations.

Read also: Nepal by night, Anil Chitrakar

A study by Nyaupane and his students found that stargazers are also interested in other nature-based activities such as trekking, rafting, observing wildlifebirdwatching, and nature photography. Nyaupane emphasizes, “Since a large segment of tourists visiting Nepal are nature-based tourists, astrotourism adds significant value to our existing tourism products.”

Park offices, army barracks, and scattered settlements are the only sources of artificial light within Nepal’s national parks, but the night sky can also be polluted by excess illumination from nearby cities and villages in the buffer zones. Even national parks like Chitwan can benefit if tourists know they can go on safari by day and stargaze by night. Because Nepal has been late in electrifying rural areas, it may be easier to encourage ecologically sustainable lighting that creates less glare.

The world has changed rapidly in the last century and many of the things we once took for granted are now precious and dwindling resources -- like breathable air, unpolluted water, and the diversity of plants and animals in our forests and fields. Now, we are in danger of losing the darkness of the night.

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The view of the heavens once prompted awe and wonder at creation, and humility at our place in the universe. It inspired artistic expression and led to the development and flourishing of astronomy and astrology, but it is now unavailable from much of the planet.

The Italy-based Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute says 80% of the earth’s landmass suffers from light pollution, and for 99% of people in Europe and the United States, the night sky is obscured by artificial lighting.

People are now travelling across the world in pursuit of dark skies. Identifying this as a top tourism trend in 2019, premier travel publisher Lonely Planet wrote: ‘Across the planet, travellers are now seeking out the world’s last-remaining dark skies where they can get a clear, unpolluted view of the stars.’

In 2001, the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), which works to protect the night skies for present and future generations, began to offer certification to national parks around the world in recognition of their effort to preserve the dark sky.

Certification has not meant eliminating illumination: measures include making sure essential lighting points downwards  to where it is needed, eliminating upward leakage and thereby also reducing energy wastage.

The IDA has so far certified 77 parks, most of them in remote areas of the US and Europe, boosting astrotourism. Many of the Dark Sky Parks have set up observatories so as to add value to the astrological experience on offer.

Read also: Innovations in Nepal's Tourism Industry, Siddharth Inc.

Outnumbering the stars

2020 saw the start of a program to launch thousands of new, low-orbit satellites to enable faster global internet access. The creation of an American aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, SpaceX Starlink satellites could soon outnumber the stars in the night sky. Amazon and other tech companies are also reaching into space for better satellite communications.

However, because of the lower orbit of these satellites, they are much more visible from earth at night as they reflect sunlight. SpaceX itself plans to have 12,000 of these in space by the middle of the decade. One astronomer’s projection of what this might look like from earth is dizzying: lots of tiny bright lights zipping across a firmament that was once deep and still.

Tens of thousands of these reflective objects would outnumber the approximately 9,000 stars that are visible to the naked eye in a natural dark sky. And even when satellites die, they continue to orbit the earth as space debris.

These new, highly visible satellites have already begun to mar astrological observations and scientists worry that their presence will impact on our ability to understand the physical universe beyond the stratosphere. SpaceX has responded to these concerns by giving the underside of some of its satellites a dark coating, but it has yet to be seen to what extent this will remedy the problem.

Astronomers find that part of the difficulty is that legislation has not kept pace with technology. There are no national or international regulations on sky pollution or protections of astronomical research.

Read also: It's all about IT, Sahina Shrestha

Photographing the night sky

One of the world’s foremost photographers of the night sky says Nepal is the best place on the planet to see the stars and to take pictures of them.

Ukrainian photographer Yevhen Samuchenko has been to Nepal three times to explore remote locations to take night pictures, and finds Langtang to be one of the most picturesque places for night sky views.

“I am impressed by the magnificent mountains and landscapes, as well as the opportunity to observe the clear starry sky of the Himalaya without the light pollution from big cities,” Samuchenko says.

Samuchenko took the photos featured above during a trek of Langtang valley in 2017, after pre-selecting the exact point for the shoot during the day and experimenting with different lenses.

“For this picture, I settled on the fisheye lens, which allowed me to effectively compose the Gosainkunda lake and the foreground. I dedicated it to the memory of my father and called it the ‘the calmness of eternity’,” says Samuchenko who used an exposure time of 46 seconds at F3.5, ISO2500, 10mm  of his Nikon D5200 with a Tokina 10-17 fisheye.

Gosainkunda Calmness of Eternity has won Samuchenko several wards including runner up for the CNN Travel Photographer of the Year 2019, which had 20,000 entries from 140 countries. The photo was also exhibited this month at the London Science Museum, which has named Samuchenko Science Photographer of the Year.

Milkyway above the Ocean of Clouds was exhibited in London by the Royal Photographic Society in 2018.

Adds Samuchenko: "I like night photos for their slow pace. You can break away from the bustle of the day, and the long exposure does not interfere with the contemplation of the starry sky. Watching the majestic night sky makes me feel like a small particle of the Universe, merging into a single whole with it.”

More photographs of the night sky by Yevhen Samuchenko

Wildlife needs darkness, and so do we

Plants and animals depend on the day-and-night cycle of light and darkness. The darkness of the night enables countless species to rest, reproduce, feed, and hide from predators. Artificial lighting, including clouds brightened by reflection, illuminate areas far beyond the direct source of light. This impacts behaviours of animals essential to their survival. Scientists are only now beginning to understand the severe effect that artificial lighting has had on biodiversity since the industrial revolution began 200 years ago.

Human beings, like other animals, are guided by circadian rhythms. Research shows that the intrusion of light into the night correlates to an increased risk of health problems including obesity, diabetes, depression, sleep disorders, and certain forms of cancer.

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