Discovering the dark

Kate Dougan on the benefits of our coast being one of the darkest areas in the UK

The inky darkness of a Norfolk coast night is an important part of its much-loved rural wilderness and remoteness.

 There are places here where you can feel like the last person on the planet. We all love this rural nature, the panoramic unspoilt landscapes, and the connection with the environment that they bring.  And this connection is enhanced once the sun goes down.

This darkness is not something to be wary of but somewhere that you can focus on your other senses and make new discoveries. People often underestimate how the peace and tranquillity you get from our spectacularly dark landscapes has an impact on our health and wellbeing.  

For thousands of years people have marvelled at the skies and looked to the stars for answers about our place in the universe. This magical and awe-inspiring connection enables us to gain a sense of perspective and calmness. 

Breathing space

Our areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks make up most of the 22% of England which has truly pristine dark skies, and here we are often rewarded with clear, starry skies with views of our own galaxy the Milky Way, countless constellations, meteor showers, planets and occasionally even the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

Add to this a greater ability to tap into all your senses which become heightened in place of your sight, and ultimately you connect more strongly with nature. Our dark landscapes can offer us this breathing space to take time out from our increasingly busy society.

But it’s not all about stars. Dark is necessary for health – it resets our biological clock and reduces stress. Science backs up the emotional connection. As mammals, humans are diurnal creatures: our daily behaviour relates to a 24-hour day and night cycle. 

Darkness allows our built-in biological clocks or ‘circadian rhythms’ to reset themselves, with night time essential to allow our bodies to synchronise with this natural cycle. At night our bodies produce a hormone called melatonin which when released causes sleepiness; good sleep being essential for our survival.  

Long-term health

Melatonin itself is an antioxidant, has anti-inflammatory attributes and boosts our immune system, but for it to work properly it needs dark conditions. Should we be exposed to light e.g. from increased light pollution, our melatonin is suppressed and over time can affect our long-term health (impaired learning and memory, increased stress and anxiety, changes in metabolism or reduced immunity to illnesses).

We are not the only animal to need the dark. Many species require darkness for navigation, migration, predator-prey relationships and plant pollination. Moths and toads use the night to navigate by; foxes and badgers use the night to hunt; many species of birds will migrate at night when winds can drop. Plants use the dark too; for example arable crops and certain night blooming flowers such as bladder campion depend on moths and night-flying butterflies for pollination.

Light pollution is an increasing problem but one which can easily and quickly be reversed. Everyone can do their bit, and local authorities are helping too, saving carbon and cash by removing or switching to more energy efficient warm-white LED street lighting.  

The Norfolk coast dark skies project aims to celebrate our pristine dark skies and landscapes, raise awareness of light pollution issues and encourage everyone to ‘do their bit’ to preserve the tranquillity and rural character achieved from truly dark skies.  

Be part of the dark

1 Less lighting, less carbon. Electric light is often generated by the burning of fossil fuels. A standard 100-watt light bulb left on for four hours a day for a year creates 125kg of carbon dioxide. Energy saving light bulbs which consume 80% less energy, reduce those carbon dioxide emissions to 25kg per year. Such technology is helping to reduce emissions from lighting. Keeping lights off will reduce carbon even further.

2 Stargazing sites. The Norfolk coast has four Dark Sky Discovery Sites. Kelling Heath Holiday Park, Wiveton Downs, Barrow Common and Titchwell RSPB Reserve are places the Norfolk Coast Partnership has helped to have listed as specially good for stargazing. Find out more at www.norfolkcoastaonb.org.uk/partnership/dark-sky-discovery-sites/1160

3 Plan less light pollution. Recently published government guidance www.gov.uk/guidance/light-pollution places greater emphasis on reducing light pollution and gives it more recognition within the planning process. There are lots of opportunities for householders, landowners, local businesses and visitors to help conserve our dark skies.