Dark Sky Park Program in Hungary

Zoltán Kolláth, Konkoly Observatory, Budapest, Hungary

István Gyarmathy, Hortobágy National Park Directorate

The Hungarian protected area network (national parks, wildlife reserves) almost overlaps with the dark sky areas. This fact indicates their mission in protecting dark skies, as nature conservation is deeply interrelated with protecting the nocturnal landscape. Our goal was to identify those areas, which could be suitable for the nomination to be dark sky parks. In Europe it is hard to find really dark places. Even far from large cities and local settlements there is an increased level of sky brightness due to excessive sources hundreds of kilometres away from that location. Within a circle of 100km radius around Budapest it is impossible to find good locations. Our primary targets are the Zselic Landscape Protection Area and the Hortobágy National Park.

The Zselic region, which is located in the Southwest part of Hungary, is one of the best locations for dark skies in Hungary. The area of the protected park is 10,500 hectares, and its major part is woodland. The Zselic Landscape Protection Area has excellent night sky, on clear nights the quality of the sky inside the park is better than 21 magnitudes per square arcsecond (500 μcd/m2), e.g. the artificial component of luminance of the nocturnal sky is less than its natural component. The Milky Way, the Zodiacal light and other faint phenomena are clearly visible by naked eye on a clear night.

Flowers and zodiacal light—impressions from our “Wild flower and star hunting ride”, Zselic 2008 spring.

The dark sky park project was initiated at the 2nd Light Pollution Meeting in Hungary, October 27, 2006. At this occasion the director of the Duna-Dráva National Park Directorate and the president of the Hungarian Astronomical Association signed an agreement on the formation of a Starry Sky Park at the Zselic Landscape Protection Area. According to the agreement, the Duna-Dráva National Park Directorate includes the conservation of the night sky in its management plan and the Hungarian Astronomical Association performs a night sky monitoring at the Zselic Landscape Protection Area and in its neighbourhood. An educational footpath is planned in the region, which gives information on astronomy, light pollution and the nocturnal habitat of local species. The National Park Directorate and the Hungarian Astronomical Association has also agreed to contact the neighbouring municipalities to involve them in the project.

After the signing of the agreement we have negotiated with the mayors of the neighbouring villages. We have received positive reaction form all the 17 municipalities. In a second agreement, broadened with the Lighting Society of Hungary and the Zselica Alliance—an association of the villages at the Zselic region—the project was extended to the settlements of the region. With the help of the Lighting Society, these villages will include a night sky friendly lighting code in their regulatory plans. Recently the neighbouring villages had negligible light pollution effects on the protected area, and with this agreement it is guaranteed that this state will be conserved, or even improved in the future.

The only way to protect the quality of the sky at the Zselic Landscape Protection Area is to avoid unnecessary upward light emission, especially one just above the horizontal direction. Inside the park there are no settlements, only a few building related to the local forestry. The only significant premises inside the park are the recreational buildings and hotel of the forestry (Hotel Kardosfa). The renovation and extension of this building was completed during 2007. The outdoor lighting of this institution (parking lots, footpath, etc.) was designed and was build according to the recommendations by the Lighting Society of Hungary. Only fully shielded (full cut off) lighting fixtures are used. The light pollution has been minimised in the vicinity of the premises. A subjective quality of the lighting is that this institute cannot be visible by its light in the forest, until one reaches the close vicinity of the buildings on the forestry road.

A typical nocturnal scenery at Zselic

The ‘Zselic Starry Sky Park’ plays role also as pilot project for further similar initiatives. Further plans exist at the Hortobágy National Park—the first and biggest (82 000 hectares) hungarian national park, world heritage and Ramsar site-, to continue our joint efforts for protecting the dark sky in Hungary. The park is a great and continous grassland area with wetland mosaics, the most extended in its category in Europe. Hortobágy is one of the darkest areas in Hungary, and a good candidate to be the second national “Dark Sky Park”. It’s significance is mostly related to the protection of the high biodiversity, especially the great number of migrating bird species.

Migrating cranes above Hortobágy

A special monitoring program has been started to survey the nocturnal species and also to monitor the quality of night sky using Sky Quality Meter and DSLR camera. Negotiations with the local stakeholders and with the regional regulatory boards have been started too. In putting the nomination together the park has a cooperation with the University “Szt. István” Budapest.

Hortobágy National Park—an upolluted island in the Hungarian Great Plain

The management plans of both protected areas are under revision. The Ministry of Environment and Water has approved and it stands for the accentuated inclusion of dark sky awareness in the management plans. Policy against light pollution will be included in the management plans of all the national parks and protected areas. According to our efforts the new Law for Protection of Nature will include the possibility of control artificial lights in protected areas. Both at the Zselic and the Hortobágy, stargazing night walks are frequently organised. There is a high interest by the general public to attend these night adventures. During the International Year of Astronomy 2009 we plan to organise star hunting hikes at least ones each month. Our goal is to preserve our cultural heritage the starry sky to the next generation. Then phenomena like the Zodiacal light remain visible at least in nature parks.

“Night Watch - Hikers under Orion” Zselic night time walk, March 1 2008

Visitors observe Jupiter right after sunset in the Hortobagy National Park’s “Crane-migration festival” in18. October 2008