Saving the night: The environmental case for dark sky

Saturday , May 02, 2015 - 2:34 PM

Astronomy began inspiring Zach Thomas six years ago, when he got his first telescope. This year, when it came time for the 14-year-old to do his science fair project as a student at Snowcrest Junior High, he naturally looked to the stars for inspiration.

He knew our view of celestial bodies from Earth was under threat because of human-made lights. He learned as much through his involvement with Ogden Valley Starry Nights and the Ogden Astronomical Society. But he wanted to fully grasp how much influence artificial illumination had on the night, even the light coming from his own yard.

Zach focused his telescope on his two favorite planets, Saturn and Jupiter, and on the Orion Nebula. He looked at them first with a garage light and a streetlight turned on. Then he looked at them after the lights were out. The results, he explained, were astonishing.

“You could see Jupiter and Saturn, but they looked like round balls of light, they didn’t really look like anything,” he said. “But without the light pollution, you could see lots of detail … on Jupiter, the bands and the big red storm, then on Saturn you can see the rings pretty well.”

These images of the planet Saturn, captured by Snowcrest Junior High student Zach Thomas through his telescope, show the impacts of light pollution to the night sky. The photo on the left was taken with a street light and garage light on, and the second image was taken after the lights had turned off.

Zach lives in Ogden Valley near North Fork Park, which received a Bronze-tier Dark Sky Park designation by the International Dark Sky Association last month. The efforts to protect that section of the night sky means he’ll likely have a dark pocket to enjoy his astronomical curiosity for years to come. But it has also opened his eyes on the significance of the light pollution intrusion.

Stargazing has inspired humanity for eons, but a loss of nighttime dark doesn’t only mean the loss of a scenic and stirring experience. It also signifies a bigger environmental problem.

“It costs a lot of both money and carbon to produce electricity to run all that lighting,” said John Barentine, an astronomer and program manager with the International Dark Skies Association.

The urban-lit bubble that comes from all that artificial light also means misdirected energy. Light in the sky isn’t useful to humans who need it to see things on the ground.

It also means a loss of the resources humans use to produce that energy. The International Dark Sky Association estimates between 30 and 50 percent of outdoor light is wasted by over-illumination.

“That’s many millions of tons of carbon dioxide, so to the extent that it’s connected to global climate change is why light pollution is a global problem, regardless of where you live, even a place with no electric light,” he said.

Nighttime darkness is important for many plant and animal species.

“Here, there are more issues with migratory birds that may be distracted with the night sky,” said Jeremy Bryson, an assistant professor of geography at Weber State University. “It also impacts the patterns of animals that are dependent on the night.”

Because all living things are tied to a biological rhythm used to light in the day and dark at night, loss of nighttime darkness could also have implications for human health.

“We live in a world that didn’t have artificial light until the last 130 years or so,” Barentine said. “The light we’re putting into the environment is challenging the biological world in a way that it’s never been challenged before, and we don’t yet know what all the implications are for that.”

The dark sky designation at North Fork Park marks a significant test case for dark skies and the International Dark Sky Association. It’s the closest dark sky park to an urban area. It’s also the first Bronze Tier designation, which allows for the bubble of urban light peeking over the Wasatch Mountains from Ogden, since abundant amounts of stars remain visible to viewers within the park.

Stars shine over the Northern Wasatch Mountains above North Fork Park in Eden. The park was recently designated as an International Dark Sky Park. Such a designation is rare for a location so close to an urban area. The glow from the lights of Ogden can be seen pouring over the ridge.

“The shadow of the mountains is the thing that makes this spot unique and special,” Bryson said. “To have a place where you can go see the Milky Way after a 20-minute drive from Ogden, it’s unbelievable. It doesn’t really happen anywhere.”

Bryson and several of his students at Weber State University worked to help measure the quality of North Fork Park’s dark sky and move it toward International Dark Sky Association accreditation. And it’s going to take a diverse team, including Bryson’s students, along with volunteers from cities and local astronomy and environmental groups, to keep the lights down and North Fork’s dark sky park designation secured.

Still, the state’s population is expected to double in the coming decades, with much of that growth coming to northern Utah. More people means more development and more encroaching artificial light.

“We’re definitely going to have to keep an eye on (North Fork Park) in the future, but there’s an opportunity for the park and its supporters to try and change some things on the ground, and in the area around Ogden, to slow that process,” Barentine said.

The loss of nighttime skies is a human problem but it also has human solutions. A lot of those solutions start at home, like switching off outdoor lights at night and getting fixtures with shades that direct light to the ground.

“Light pollution is one of the easiest types of pollution to stop,” Bryson said. “There are only a couple of ways to do it. One, you turn off the lights, and two, you point the lights in a different direction.”

The International Dark Skies Association has a long list of outdoor lights with its “Fixture Seal of Approval” for nighttime illumination. More and more of those lights are making their way onto the shelves of local hardware and home improvement stores.

According to Barentine, most of the success his organization sees comes from those local efforts, whether it’s a homeowner installing a light shield on their porch light or a business owner who chooses to dim or switch off their sign at night.

“We’re not the light cops; our goal isn’t to make the world dark,” Barentine said. “Our goal is to make more intelligent use of artificial light, by better containing it to the function it has in our lives.”

Zach Thomas and his family made sure to change their outdoor light fixtures so they’re not contributing to light pollution in Ogden Valley. He’s also noticed big improvements in local light pollution with community efforts in the area.

“I think dark skies are important because everyone wants to be able to go outside and see the stars, and the way we’re going now, that could all go away,” he said. “I want people my age to be able to grow up and teach their children about dark skies and tell all their friends about it, to get the word out and preserve the stars.”

Contact reporter Leia Larsen at llarsen@standard.net or 801 625-4289.

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