World Heritage Status for Austrian Village’s Starry Skies

Grossmugl, a small village (pop. 1600) located in Lower Austria, is seeking UNESCO world heritage status for the protection of its starry skies, reports an article posted last week in Earth Times. Villagers are upset about excessive light pollution coming from Vienna, only a 30 minute drive from Grossmugl, which they say obscures all but 40 of the 5,000 stars that typically light up the night sky. With major support from local astronomers, the town is hoping to convince UNESCO of the “outstanding universal value” of their stars.

The geography of Grossmugl–in a valley among low hills and clean, crisp air–offers star gazers a near unique experience as can only be found in a few other locations. Astronomers like Guenther Wuchterl have called this star gazing experience in Grossmugl a “window into the universe” and believe in the protection of “the human right to see the Milky Way.” They maintain that the starry sky is a piece of cultural heritage that has been a source of knowledge for generations: humans have used it for navigation, for time-keeping, and for cosmological purposes, among others. If efforts to preserve the conditions for Grossmugl’s stargazing succeed, and the town is named a “starlight reserve” and given world heritage status, then UNESCO will officially recognize the cultural heritage value of celestial bodies.

In this case, UNESCO will be forced to expand the criteria for its definition of “natural world heritage site,” as given in the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage 1972. Currently the types of natural heritage considered in Article 2 are:

  • natural features consisting of physical and biological formations or groups of such formations, which are of outstanding universal value from the aesthetic or scientific view;
  • geological and physiographical formations and precisely delineated areas which constitute the habitat of threatened species of animals and plants of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation;
  • natural sites or precisely delineated natural areas of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science, conservation or natural beauty.

and the four criteria offered in the Operational Guidelines 2005 are:

  1. to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
  2. to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
  3. to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
  4. to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

Nowhere on this list will you find objects of astronomical or celestial importance, or “starlight reserves” as will be proposed to the World Heritage Committee. Thus UNESCO will have to amend this category to their definition of natural heritage accordingly. The committee already has plans to meet in July to discuss whether starlight protection is feasible both practically and theoretically. If voted yes, Grossmugl (and other sites like Lake Tekapo, Zealand) will be able to apply for world heritage status after another conference is held in 2011.

What is your view of this potential cultural heritage addition? Do you support or disclaim its inclusion on the World Heritage List? (Would including nightscapes on the List open up archaeoastronomic sites to inclusion as well??) What are the differing virtues of inclusion versus exclusion in terms of our appreciation of global cultural heritage?  Keep in mind, the citizens of Grossmugl have begun implementing preliminary cultural preservation and conservation measures (e.g. street lamp installation; “light consulting” sessions with astronomers; low-key tourism for stargazers)

This entry was posted in Austria, cultural conservation, Grossmugl, natural heritage, UNESCO, World Heritage List. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to World Heritage Status for Austrian Village’s Starry Skies

  1. Mark says:

    Let's say stargazing is at its best for about 8 hours each night. According to there are 13.3 days a month with rain, sleet, slush, or snow multiplied by 12 months this comes to roughly 160 days. Now, 365-160=205 days of clear skies plus or minus a few. Thus, is it worth expanding the UNESCO categories for a place that has on average 1,640 hours of stargazing per annum? Places in Arizona have no fewer than 240 sunny days per year, accordingly, is Grossmugl really the cleanest "window into the universe"?

  2. Maybe not, but perhaps its skies could be considered "superlative natural phenomenon" of "an area of exceptional natural beauty." What would the preservation of skies entail apart from implementing building codes in the area? Would there be any way of implementing building/light pollution regulations without UNESCO?

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