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You Can See the Northern Lights From Michigan's First Dark Sky Sanctuary

Michigan Astronomy
by Alex Bresler Apr 17, 2024

The Great Lakes State just received its first International Dark Sky Sanctuary certification. Earlier this month, DarkSky International recognized northern Michigan’s Beaver Island State Wildlife Research Area, which spans 9,425 acres of Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, for its “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights.”

The research area was certified as a Dark Sky Sanctuary (rather than a Dark Sky Park or Reserve) due to its relatively isolated location. Sanctuary designations are generally designed to promote awareness for properties whose remoteness limits their risk of light pollution but also inhibits public outreach efforts. Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan, is only reachable by ferry or plane, weather permitting. That the island is a wildlife research area, and therefore conserved for its natural and scientific value, also qualifies it as a Dark Sky Sanctuary.

In addition to hosting a newly minted International Dark Sky Sanctuary, Beaver Island falls within UNESCO’s Obtawaing Biosphere. While more than 97 percent of the sanctuary is overseen by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Central Michigan University oversees 230 acres as a Biological Research Area.

But at the end of the day, what unites all International Dark Sky properties is their extraordinary night skies. On Beaver Island, any number of celestial bodies and phenomena are visible at night, from various constellations and galaxies to meteor showers and the Milky Way. Two particularly special presences are that of the northern lights and zodiacal light, a rare and ethereal astronomical occurrence that occurs when soft sunlight reflects interplanetary dust.

An increasingly popular stargazing destination, Beaver Island at large may be due for an International Dark Sky certification one day, beyond the research area, says Dark Sky Places Program Manager Amber Harrison.

“Through education and advocacy, these efforts protect the natural and cultural setting of the island against the threat of increased growth,” says Harrison of the research area’s International Dark Sky Sanctuary designation in the previously linked release by DarkSky International. Harrison adds, “I am excited to continue our work towards growing the certification area to include the full island in the future.”

Kevin Boyle, Vice President of the Beaver Island Association, agrees, noting, “Eventually, we hope to expand the sanctuary’s boundaries to include the entire archipelago.”

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