The sky above Lake Tekapo, a New Zealand's South Island township, is studded with countless glittering stars on a clear night. Because light pollution affects 80 per cent of the world, this spectacular night view is unusual—but not uncommon in this island nation of 5 million people.
Indeed, New Zealand aims to be certified as a dark sky nation by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDSA), a first for a country of New Zealand's size.
Indigenous Mori people spearhead the initiative by raising awareness about dark sky preservation's ecological and cultural significance.
Rangi Mtmua (of Ngi Thoe tribal descent), an astronomer and professor of Mtauranga Mori (Mori knowledge) at Massey University, says, "Our language [te reo Mori] and different cultural practises and beliefs come out of our observations of the night sky." The Mori people, for example, use maramataka (the lunar calendar) to determine the best times and seasons to plant, harvest, fish, and hunt.
The exceptional dark skies of New Zealand are more than just a beautiful backdrop for stargazers. Here's how to taste them and learn about their cultural significance.
The sky and the sea
Mori's Polynesian ancestors sailed across the Pacific Ocean in double-hulled canoes called waka hourua hundreds of years before the founding of Rome. Their understanding of the night sky enabled them to navigate vast, featureless distances on the seas without using compasses or sextants.
"Our traditions tell us that our ancestors travelled for various reasons," Te Taka Keegan, associate dean Mori at the University of Waikato, says. "We were on the ocean to fish, travel to see family, and set off to new countries."
Keegan completed his master's thesis on traditional navigation and assisted in sailing a waka hourua 2,700 nautical miles from Hawaii to Rarotonga, Cook Islands, using early Polynesian navigation techniques.
First, he says, it's critical to note where the stars rise and set. Voyagers would line up their canoes with the stars on the horizon, and as those stars grew, sailors knew how to line up with the leads that would take their place. Bright planets like Jupiter and Venus also helped sailors find their way. The moon illuminated wave patterns, which provided yet another indication of direction.
According to Keegan, these were more than just navigational aids. "You develop a sense of familiarity, a bond with the stars." You're not alone on the sea—all these other friends in the sky are watching over you."
The Star Mythology
It is critical for conservation and biodiversity to protect New Zealand's night sky. Dark skies are essential for nocturnal birds, such as declining koror (little blue penguins), which come ashore at night to prepare their nests, and migratory birds, such as bar-tailed godwits, which use star positions to navigate the night sky. Insects, whose population is declining due to light pollution, require darkness as well. For example, at-risk wt are nocturnal, and artificial light may reduce their activity.
"The night sky is essential to the balance of [New Zealand's] ecosystems," says Olive Karena-Lockyer, an astronomy educator at Auckland's Stardome Observatory and a member of the Te Aupuri and Ngati Raukawa tribes. "It affects every aspect of the environment." As the night sky changes throughout the year, it becomes an indicator of various natural processes," such as flower blooming.
The appearance of the Matariki star cluster (also known as the Pleiades) in June or July signals the beginning of the Mori New Year. "Traditionally, we would gather food from various parts of the environment—freshwater, saltwater, the gardens, the forest—and cook it in the ground," Mtmua explains. "When the star cluster rises in the morning sky, we offer that food to thank you for all we've received throughout the year and to hope for the promise of a new and prosperous season."
Mori mythology has also been influenced by the moon, stars, and constellations. "The stars were perceived as beings who were bound together as a family," wrote the authors of a study reviewing Mori astronomy.
Developing into a country with a dark sky
The pristine night skies above Lake Tekapo (Takap in te reo Mori) are part of a 1,686-square-mile area in Aoraki National Park and the Mackenzie Basin designated as a dark sky reserve by the IDSA, one of only 20 in the world.
Approximately 74% of the night skies in New Zealand's North Island and 93% in the South Island are "pristine or degraded only near the horizon." After Niue, which was certified in 2020, New Zealand is now on a mission to become the second dark sky country.
According to Nalayini Davies, a New Zealand astronomer who also serves on the IDSA's board of directors, it's within reach. Still, it will take at least three years to raise awareness among residents, change and implement local light ordinances, and expand the area of protected places.
"What’s a ‘dark sky nation’ and why does New Zealand want to become one?— Ruchir Sharma (@ruchirsharma_1) November 3, 2022
With Māori experts leading the way, the country is planning to slash light pollution at an unprecedented scale."https://t.co/VDrE0xBz3I
The next step is to educate people about light pollution, which is where astrotourism comes in. The Dark Sky Project is co-owned by Ngai Tahu, one of New Zealand's largest iwi (tribes). The tour company promotes the preservation of dark skies while incorporating science through Mori astronomy.
"Looking at and connecting with the sky is at the heart of humanity." "It's one of the first activities that every single culture on the planet did, and the night sky is inextricably linked to who we are as humans," Mtmua says. "When we sever that bond, we change as a people." We're changing how we think about our world and what's important to us. We must try to devise better ways to use lights and care for our night sky."