OGDEN -- Remember the last time you looked up at the night sky, and were awed by the massive number of stars you could see and how bright they were? If you live along the Wasatch Front, you probably haven’t had that experience in a long time — or you were on vacation away from city lights.
“Eighty percent of the world’s population has never seen the Milky Way,” said Janet Muir, a member of an group named Ogden Valley Starry Nights.
The problem is that bright lights flood the skies, washing away the ability to see the stars.
North Fork Park, in Ogden Valley, is one of the few places you can still see the Milky Way near an urban center.
“It’s because of the topography,” said Muir. “The mountains are blocking light pollution from the Wasatch Front and Cache Valley.”
It’s also because the park is fairly rustic, with limited lighting — and there are people who want to keep it that way.
Ogden Valley Starry Nights, in collaboration with Weber County Parks and Recreation, Weber State University, the Ogden Astronomical Society and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, is applying for North Fork Park to be accredited as an International Dark-Sky Park. The International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Ariz., awards accreditation if artificial light and skyglow are limited in a park. Parks can be awarded gold, silver or bronze designations, based on visibility of phenomena such as the Milky Way, constellations and meteors. North Fork Park is a likely candidate for a bronze designation.
If the weather cooperates, the Milky Way will be visible to anyone attending a star party at 8:30 p.m. May 23, in North Fork Park at 4150 E. 5950 N., Liberty (enter at the North Cutler Flats Gate and follow signs to the View Bowery). The party features telescopes and experts from the Weber State faculty and the Ogden Astronomical Society. It’s recommended that participants wear warm clothing, and bring binoculars and a flashlight with a red lens or covering. A smart phone, with good astronomy apps, can be used to identify constellations.
Natural Bridges National Monument, in Utah, became the world’s first Dark-Sky Park in 2007. If North Fork Park is accredited, it will be the second county park to earn Dark-Sky designation in the United States, and the first so close to an urban area.
“We’ve been told to keep the park rustic ... this kind of helps keep that on task,” said Jennifer Graham, Weber County recreation facilities director. “I camped up there the first weekend of May, and sat back and just looked at the stars. ... I couldn’t tell you any constellations or star names, but it’s still nice to see them.”
Stacy Palen, a physics professor at WSU, says it’s more than just nice to see the stars.
“So much of our history, and the stories we tell, are connected to the night sky in some way. The constellations, planets and moon all figure very prominently in mythology and moral stories,” she said. “If we loose the ability to even see those things, I feel like we lose a part of our humanity.”
Humans’ sleep patterns are also impacted by light pollution, but it’s not just humans who struggle with too much light in the night sky. Palen says many studies done show that if the sky is always bright, it affects the migration patterns of birds and other animals.
Jeremy Bryson, a geography professor at WSU, says the problem is how we’re lighting our homes, offices, shops and other places — too much light is being directed up into the atmosphere instead of just where it’s needed.
“If you look at images of the Earth at night, and the cities are lit up, what you’re looking at is, essentially, light pollution — not the light being used,” he said.
Calling attention to places like North Fork Park, through Dark-Sky Park designation, is one way to raise awareness of light pollution.
“We can use this as our foot in the door for exploring how we can limit light pollution throughout the rest of Weber County,” said Bryson.
On an individual level, he said, it can be as simple as looking at the lights on your garage.
“If you were to hold a paper or big board up over the top of the light fixture, would it be illuminated by the light? If it would, you’re forcing light up into the night sky,” he said. “That may require changing fixtures to ones that have hoods on them so all the light is facing the ground.”
He also suggests replacing security lights that are always on, with lights that only turn on when motion is detected.
Land use planning, and resulting outside lighting ordinances, can encourage people to have responsible lighting fixtures at homes and place of business, he said.
According to Muir, Ogden Valley’s dark sky lighting ordinance was the first in Utah.
Bryson and his students became part of North Fork Park’s application for Dark-Sky recognition when they started using hand-held sensors to test the quality of the skies over the Ogden Valley, and examining local land use ordinances.
There are benefits, besides seeing stars, to preserving dark skies.
People can save money by using smarter lighting strategies that don’t waste electricity by shining it up into the sky, Palen said. More efficient lighting can also cut down on glare and shadows to improve safety.
“The nice thing about light pollution is that it’s the one kind of pollution you could fix tomorrow,” Palen said. “Just turn a switch and it’s done. Install a light fixture and it’s done. ... With every other kind of pollution, you have to think really hard about it.”
Another possible benefit to preserving dark skies is astrotourism. Muir says a lot of people are drawn to southern Utah’s parks by more than the red rocks — they want to see the stars.
“Utah, you hear about it anecdotally, has the most dollars from astrotourism,” she said.
Muir says northern Utah could use dark skies to lure people to ski resorts during off seasons, by offering chairlifts to star parties. Agricultural areas, like the Ogden Valley, could also rake in tourist dollars.
‘It’s very family friendly,” she said. “You could have wagon rides by star light.”
Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.