Activities for your visit

The nighttime sky on Ocracoke has a starring role

Ocracoke NC night sky

The nighttime celestial backdrop at Ocracoke’s Lifeguard Beach, by Aaron Stiles.

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See below for information about the NPS nighttime sky appreciation event 7 to 10 p.m. Monday, Aug. 14, at the Lifeguard Beach.

By David Mickey

Since the beginning of time, the nighttime celestial vista has been a source of wonder and inspiration.

On Ocracoke, the stars are clear from horizon to horizon since the island, 23 miles off the mainland, is the darkest place on the East Coast, according to National Park Service (NPS) information.

And it is poised to get even darker as the NPS seeks Dark Sky Designation from the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), Tucson, Ariz.  When accepted, it will be the first such designation for a national seashore. 

Since 2001, the IDA has designated 13 national parks, monuments and preserves in the United States as Dark Sky Parks, although most are located in the western United States far from urban light sources where light pollution hinders visibility of the nighttime celestial vista. 

In its 2016 Cape Hatteras National Seashore State of the Park Report, the Park Service classifies the night sky as “good,” which means that hundreds of thousands more stars are visible here than in urban areas.

“The Milky Way is visible from horizon to horizon, showing great detail, such as the Prancing Horse” constellation the report says.

Receiving Dark Sky designation is an involved process beginning with an inventory of all light sources in the park, initial conversion of 67 percent of those lights to dark-sky lighting, a five-year plan for 90 percent conversion and a 10-year plan for 100 percent conversion. 

Applicants prepare a lightscape management and a monitoring plan to assure protection of the night sky resource.  Public access and regular education programs are major requirements for designation.

The multi-year application process continues. 

Stacey Sigler, acting chief of Resource Management and Science for Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said the park counted 487 Park Service light fixtures. Of those, 327 must be retrofitted for the IDA application.  The Park Service has applied for Department of Interior grants to cover the cost.

Since Dark Skies criteria include partnering with neighboring agencies, public utilities and electric co-ops, on Ocracoke that means Tideland EMC. 

In May, Tideland initiated a program to replace all 7,300 security lights with LED fixtures.  Ocracoke’s first LED security light is installed outside the Working Watermen’s exhibit in Community Square.

“The replacements are ‘dark skies’ compliant, meaning light shines down and not up or into neighboring windows,” wrote Heidi Smith in the June “Tideland Topics” in the publication “Carolina Country.”

The Park Service is only responsible for fixtures they own, so replacing Tideland’s security lights on Park Service property, such as at the Ocracoke Campground, will enhance the park’s night sky.

LED security lights reduce electricity use and removes a potential source of mercury pollution.  Mercury vapor and high-pressure sodium fixtures will be sent to a recycling facility for safe disposal.  Tideland also collects CFL light bulbs that contain mercury at their Ocracoke office on Odd Fellows Road.

The NPS effort to gain Dark Sky recognition will be gradual. 

“This process will likely take three to four years depending on how quickly we can get our lights retrofitted,” she said.  “As we continue to work through this process, we plan to continue to offer educational opportunities to the public to celebrate our night skies.”

In 2016, the NPS celebrated its Centennial Founders Day with a special stargazing event on Hatteras.  This year a similar program is planned for Ocracoke from 7 to 10 p.m. Aug. 14 at the Lifeguard Beach.

In addition, every Monday evening through Sept. 4 the NPS hosts “Ocracoke After Dark” at the Ocracoke Campground for an hour of stargazing between 8:45 and 9:45 pm.  Bring blankets, beach chairs and bug spray.

Home owners and renters are encouraged to turn off outside floodlights when not needed.

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