- This national park in The Netherlands is perfect for stargazing because it is far away from any sources of light pollution
- It is an awesome place to see the Milky Way and other amazing astronomical objects
On this particular night, the main attraction is hidden behind the clouds. Normally, the wooden tower on the eastern edge of the Lauwersmeer National Park offers a clear view of the Milky Way - a sparkling belt in the sky that you can see particularly well from here.
Darkness has descended on the treeless plain. Only in the distance can you spot a few lights, for instance in Oostmahorn, a village on the western edge of the national park. And from the city of Groningen, about 30 kilometres away, over which the sky glows orange.
Where light takes a back seat
LED lamps with soft light are used in the port of Lauwersoog in order to reduce light pollution.
Jan Willems has led his guests up the tower. For 20 years, he worked in the lakeside national park as a ranger. Now he brings night-time visitors to places from where they can stargaze.
A few geese fly off, cackling. Probably a fox, Willems says.
You can only make out the contours of the surrounding nature. The sandy area looks darker than the lake. Even the nearby barracks can barely be seen. These are optimal conditions for gazing up into the star-studded sky. But the weather is not cooperating.
Thick clouds have moved in front of the Great Bear and Little Bear constellations. So Willems talks about what you cannot see. The Milky Way for instance, which in many places cannot be seen even with a cloudlss sky - the light pollution is just too great.
Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons
“Artificial light is a blessing,” Jaap Kloosterhuis says. “But there is too much of it and a good part of it is unnecessary.”
Kloosterhuis is Willems’ successor as ranger. He works in the Lauwersnest activity centre, where a map with the planets hangs on the wall. Kloosterhuis points to Saturn.
“You can see its rings more clearly here than in many other places,” he says - at least through a telescope. The same is true for the moons of Jupiter.
Kloosterhuis’ enthusiasm at seeing the reddish glimmer of Mars or stars shooting across the sky is contagious during nightly excursions.
Houses in the Zoutkamp harbour near the Lauwersmeer stargazing park are a great addition to your Instagram feed.Such outings are part of his job, also because the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) requires it.
The US organisation awards the designation of “dark sky park.” There are about 70 around the world, including well-known sites such as Death Valley and the Grand Canyon. There are two in the Netherlands: the Boschplaat on Terschelling and the Lauwersmeer.
A haven for insects and birds
Geese in the Lauwersmeer National Park. These birds often fly towards artificial red lights, which they mistake for the sunrise - something that can be fatal when they fly towards lit-up oil rigs.
Kloosterhuis considers himself a “dark sky evangelist.” His message: it is dark at night, nature is attuned to that. Artificial light can disrupt the ecosystems.
Insects are one example, he says. They are attracted by light and fly around it until they fall to the ground exhausted, too weak to pollinate plants or look for a partner.
Geese, meanwhile, confuse the red tones in light with the sunrise. They can be found circling around brightly lit oil platforms in the North Sea.
“And when they run out of energy, they fall into the sea,” Kloosterhuis says.
That is why lights on oil rigs are now usually green.
But in the Lauwersmeer National Park, birds can have “a particularly good night’s sleep,” according to Kloosterhuis.
Here, the animals can build up their strength for the strenuous onward journey south or calmly build their nests.
The black-tailed godwit for instance does not breed when there is artificial light nearby. You can see it in the national park.
Whether you are a birdwatcher or an amateur astronomer, you should definitely bring binoculars along - and maybe check the weather forecast before heading out.