September 21, 2017

Light Pollution: Know your Enemy.

If there’s one cause that “lights” our fire here at Astroguyz, it’s the fight against Light Pollution. Now, with the 2nd Annual Great Star count well under way, it’s a good time to reflect (OK, another bad metaphor!) on what we’ve done to our night skies and what can be done about it.

To the uninitiated, the very term “light pollution” can prompt groans of “here we go again!” In modern American society, we’re told to fear terrorism, tap water, spinach, spam e-mails from Nigeria, etc. The list is endless. It’s understandable if many folks out there are reaching a saturation point. But of all the dangers we face as a modern society, light pollution is probably one of the easiest to fix; and in this case, a little bit of effort will yield a lot of return.

To illustrate, here’s some personal background. I grew up in Northern Maine, probably one of the last bastions of true darkness on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Starting out into the big bad universe, I had little by way of astronomical resources (remember, this was pre-Internet!). I eagerly devoured the outdated astronomy books (all two of them!) at the local library, and considered the Farmer’s Almanac as the prime depository of rising and setting times. But one thing I did have was a pristine dark sky outside my doorstep. On a clear, moonless night, the Milky Way was easily visible; I also considered the Orion nebula and the Andromeda galaxy as naked eye objects. Such dark residential areas are rare today. If one wants dark skies, it generally means a several hour one way drive to escape the garishness of civilization. Even at our previous residence in Vail, Arizona, former site of the esteemed Very Small Optical Observatory , light pollution was encroaching. And Tucson is one of the more enlightened societies in terms of sky decay! I sometimes wonder when my former neighbor, David Levy will have to move…

So why should we care? Why should you care? Consider these points to ponder;

Millions of dollars are wasted each day on light pollution. Most nighttime lighting isn’t illuminating anything; just wastefully radiating off as sky-glow or into space. Speaking of which, plans have been kicked around for the past few decades for orbiting bill boards! Just what†we astrophotographers need, a blinking Pepsi logo blotting out the Crab Nebula. If this isn’t a good case for Star Wars, I don’t know what is!

Our night sky is a national resource. All those big shot observatories are (or should be) a source of national pride. If the dark skies can no longer be found in the United States, the telescopes, along with the cutting edge science and the big brains that go with them, will move else were.

Wildlife is adversely affected by the perpetual daylight. Glaring cities disorient insects, migratory birds, and both predator and prey. Not the least of the animals affected is Man… and we already get little enough sleep, as it is!

Over lighting can pose a safety hazard. Anyone who has ever been caught square in the optic nerve by those garish laser-beam headlights knows what I mean. Our eyes function better at night if given time to adapt.

Loss of the night sky gives us one less thing to quietly contemplate. When the sky is a washed out white, people don’t look up. Humans love to consider our place in the scheme of things… the night sky gives us an immediate connection to this. From lovers to poets, the night sky has fueled our passions. It’s not just about “I wanna astro-image!” Nature is the ultimate light show. Once, while idly waiting for the airport shuttle on the Las Vegas strip, I amused myself by guesstimating (an Astroguyz technical term!) †The limiting magnitude from what has to be the most light polluted spot on Earth. Bright planets like Jupiter were barely visible; Orion was almost unrecognizable. Needless to say, no one has ever suggested that Vegas is conducive to quiet contemplation!

Cool tip: Got one of those prehistoric mercury-vapor lamps in your yard? Here†are two easy (and non-destructive) ways to temporarily disable it:

1. Cover it with a barb-e-que grill cover. Just use a long telescoping pole (like a painters pole) to cover and remove it.

2. Shine a laser pointer at the light sensor. This will fool it into thinking that daylight has arrived, and kill the light for about 10 minutes. Do not use your laser continuously, as it could damage its focusing crystal.

But enough of the how-to; now for the naysayers. Here are some of the common myths and fallacies surrounding light pollution;

Over lighting is necessary for security. There has never been a study that has bared this out; in fact, some suggest the opposite. I suspect that bright lights may attract thieves, as they illustrate that you have something worth stealing. Most theft is just plain opportunity.

Over lighting is necessary for safety. Again, see above. Cities like Flagstaff, Arizona†have decided to take what some would call drastic measures without compromising safety. Perhaps this view could just be attributed to the litigious nature of our society… what ever happened to the “land of the brave?”

Going “Dark Sky” would be expensive. On contrary, we could easily outfit the entire urban infrastructure with proper light fixtures for the cost of the electricity we waste as a nation in one night.

So, you may ask, what can I, the solitary Joe six pack(s), do? Well beyond participating in the Great Star Count, there is hope on the light domed horizon. Luckily, several organizations exist to rehabilitate Americans from there light wasting habit (…some nights, I’d just crank up the 300 watt halogen like it was nobody’s business; but I didn’t have a problem!) not the least of which is the International Dark Sky Association . Founded in†1988, the IDA has advanced all causes dark sky related.

As for grass roots, using full cut off light fixtures will provide a useful (and aesthetic) appeal to your property. Hell, the look might even catch on! Combating light pollution may even start to look cool… I mean really; where’s our Jenny McCarthy?† Our cause needs to be in†vogue†for it to reach the†public conscience. Finally, look at your local light pollution codes and see if anyone’s bothering to enforce them. There isn’t a local branch of the Light Pollution police that we know of; even The EPA would consider this issue beyond their scope (although it shouldn’t be). Even if codes in your neighborhood are stiff, nothing forbids the sale and installation of illegal light fixtures at your local home depot. If enough people complain, rules will be enforced.

But your best weapon against the luminous foe is education. Got a neighbor who seems intent on shining his WWII anti-aircraft beacon on your newly constructed observatory, which you just took out a second mortgage to build? Instead of suing, invite him over some clear night. Show him around the night sky. Most will gladly turn lights down for you; I’ve seen arrangements were a simple call during a moonless night would suffice. During blackouts in Miami after Hurricane Andrew, many residents remarked that they had never really seen a sky full of stars before! Its amazing what happens when our Xbox lifestyles are disrupted; we actually start thinking for ourselves!

And what of that <1% that won’t listen? Idly mentioning the term “light trespass” might change†their mind. Or perhaps a friendly reminder that light pollution†is one of the few causes††yet to have a†militant wing (not that we advocate one!)†marching for them (yet!) might be a gentle push in the right direction. We’re but simple astronomers; be nice to us.

So there you have it; a cause for our times. We may not have a slogan or a flag to rally around yet; but our†quest is just. Also, check out the cool article on Light pollution in the new National Geographic . Maybe the cause is becoming sexy! In our energy starved era, conservation is once again a hot topic. Perhaps one day, we can live in a dark sky utopia for all. Maybe we’ll tell our grand children of a time when the skies were aglow, and we foolishly squandered money and energy lighting up the night.

PS- Check the light pollution situation in the Astroguyz neighborhood!

Comments

  1. hahah.. nice.. lol

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