Our Earth is shining ever brighter out into space, thanks to ever-increasing lighting in cities and communities. Conversely, stars are often barely visible from below in the night sky because it simply doesn't get dark enough anymore. Many places now want to counter this light pollution - for example, with the Pfälzerwald Star Park, where guided tours and workshops are also offered in fall and winter.
Mighty trees tower into the evening sky, in fragrant forests grow beech, oak and maple as well as pine and other conifers. In between meandering streams, wide valley meadows are the habitat of rare plant species. A species-rich fauna lives in the Palatinate Forest, ranging from the lynx and the wild bee to the cormorant and the great egret that drop by in winter. Because of its great biodiversity and special exemplary character, Germany's largest contiguous forest area has long been recognized by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve, and together with the Northern Vosges Nature Park it forms Germany's only cross-border biosphere reserve.
Viewed from a satellite perspective at night, the Palatinate Forest is a large dark expanse in the midst of the brightly shining cities and hubs of Rhineland-Palatinate. If you look up between the trees in a clearing, you can enjoy the vast canopy of stars, discover the Milky Way - just as our ancestors did for centuries, who also used the celestial bodies for navigation. Today, the unobstructed view of the stars is becoming the exception. Above our cities, the overcast sky is up to 1500 times brighter than the natural night sky, so that often only a few stars are visible. A large part of the world's population now has to live with such light pollution. The Palatinate Forest, however, is largely free of it to this day, and it should stay that way.
Besides large forest areas streams, boulder dumps as well as various open, mostly non-forested landscapes with meadows, hedgerows, copses and orchard areas characterize the Pfälzerwald biosphere reserve. The core zones of the large protected area have already become home to numerous shy animals as well as highly specialized plant and fungus species. And so, with a little luck, you will have the opportunity to observe fire salamanders, brook lampreys, rare dragonflies or one of the numerous bat species.
The beauty of the Palatinate Forest you can also experience actively. A network of well-developed hiking trails leads past old castles and mighty sandstone cliffs. Between the ruins of Guttenberg Castle on the border with France in the south and the Donnersberg in the north, you can camp for the night at thirteen trekking sites. These can also be combined in a hike lasting several days. You can really let off steam on more than 900 kilometers of trails in the Pfälzerwald mountain bike park. Or you can test your climbing skills on towering rock massifs made of red sandstone and former quarries.
A star park is the name given to an area, that still has almost intact night landscapes and has a starry sky - the term was coined by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), which has been campaigning against light pollution since its foundation in 1988. Areas of the Palatinate Forest ideally fulfill these conditions, as measurements of sky brightness by the Technical University of Kaiserslautern prove. In the districts of Bad Dürkheim, Südwestpfalz, Südliche Weinstraße and Kaiserslautern, the project Sternenpark Pfälzerwald now wants to sensitize people to the protection of the natural night and show how a reduction in light pollution can be combined with energy savings and also preserve the beautiful view of the starry sky.
A whole package of measures is intended to help with this, including project flyers and Internet sites. A key aspect is the "Community under the Stars" certificate, which rewards star- and environmentally friendly lighting in communities within the project area and is awarded according to IDA criteria. Interested communities are provided with a catalog of measures including retrofitting and funding options as well as exemplary cost calculations for star and environmentally friendly lighting. So that the cultural asset of stargazing will be preserved for future generations.
That's not all. "Hosts under the stars" is the name of a certificate for star-friendly accommodation and catering establishments to promote astrotourism. The aim is to create suitable accommodation for starry-eyed visitors and also to sensitize hosts in the culinary sector to the issue of light pollution. This can be done by handing out flashlights with red light, star charts or binoculars, but also by adjusting checkout times or informing visitors about astronomical events in the star park region.
A special card shall also designate particularly good places in the Palatinate Forest for observing the luminous celestial bodies. Criteria such as particularly low light pollution, little obstruction of view by trees or buildings, and good accessibility by car or by a convenient footpath are intended to make the sites attractive to sky researchers, and also include a simple infrastructure such as the proximity of snack and toilet facilities. Signs inform visitors about the project and about stargazing.
So that the knowledge around the topic as widely as possible, the biosphere reserve's landscape guides and guides will be involved. And the young generation is also to be interested in the benefits and attractions of darkness in the Palatinate Forest worth protecting through school competitions. Supporters such as the Astronomische Vereinigung Vorderpfalz, the Studentische Arbeitsgemeinschaft Astronomie der Universität Kaiserslautern e.V., the Naturwissenschaftliche Verein zu Zweibrücken, the Zweibrücken Observatory and the Pälzer Schdernegugger give wings to the Sternenpark project. So that our grandchildren will still be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye later on.
Cover photo: The starry sky above Schmalenberg © Dr. Christian Mücksch
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