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The battle to control light pollution: there's never been a better time than now to make the case for preserving the night sky.


The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has been on a quest to preserve and protect the night sky for almost a quarter century, yet light pollution rises about 6% every year. Astronomical observing sites near major cities continue to succumb to skyglow. The time it takes most of us to escape from urban areas to truly dark sites is now measured in hours, not minutes. It might be easy to give up hope.

When swimming against the tide, progress can be difficult to recognize. The last few decades have seen unprecedented urban development and a corresponding growth of unregulated outdoor lighting. But as counterproductive as this seems, it's difficult to predict how bad the night sky would look now if the IDA hadn't spent the last 22 years making light pollution a recognized issue.

Today, the astronomical community remains the most sensitive to encroaching light pollution. The perceived lack of progress toward darker skies is a concern voiced by some of the most dedicated dark-sky advocates, and it's the most common explanation amateur astronomers give when asked why they aren't members of the IDA. "Why bother?" they ask. "IDA hasn't made any difference in my neighborhood." But is has.

Thanks to IDA and its volunteers, more than 300 cities and towns now have lighting ordinances. The majority of outdoor lighting fixtures sold today are fully shielded and the percentage rises each year. Many U.S. energy standards now include requirements for reducing light pollution. Outside of the U.S., national laws for outdoor lighting have been passed in the United Kingdom, Italy, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. Without IDA's early and consistent effort, many of these measures would likely not yet exist.

Years of light-pollution advocacy are paying off. Recent breakthroughs promise to irrevocably change how the public and regulators regard light pollution. Right now, energy concerns and technological advances are merging with conservation imperatives to create a real change in public perception. The general public is becoming increasingly aware that the night sky is disappearing, and measures are being taken to get it back.

For its entire history, IDA has advocated that light pollution is a waste of energy. Now elected officials all over the world are considering changes in outdoor lighting as a way to conserve. It took a surge in the price of oil and the resulting increases in electricity costs to elevate the issue in cash-strapped cities around the globe.

IDA estimates that in the U.S. more than $3 billion is wasted annually on 58,000 gigawatts of unnecessary lighting. To generate that amount of electricity, predominately coal-fired power plants produce approximately 15 million tons of carbon dioxide. Unnecessary lighting makes neither economic nor environmental sense.

Across the country, IDA volunteers are convincing local governments trying to combat climate change that outdoor lighting is a significant source of wasted energy and greenhouse gases. Inefficient outdoor lighting is also economically irresponsible. Why are cities facing budget deficits laying off teachers, police officers, and firefighters, while continuing to spend huge sums of money illuminating the undersides of airplanes?

Many cities are considering upgrading street lighting to new energy-efficient solid-state lighting (SSL). Rapidly evolving lighting technologies based on light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have surpassed the energy efficiency of older technologies such as high-pressure sodium and metal-halide lights. Not only do these new lighting fixtures save energy, they can also be controlled in ways that older fixtures cannot. Cities such as San Jose, California, are testing remote-management systems that monitor the energy consumption of each fixture and dim or turn off lights to save energy when less lighting is appropriate. The combination of these technologies may allow cities to reduce energy consumption for outdoor lighting by 40% to 50% and at the same time dramatically reduce light pollution.

The transition to a broad-spectrum LED lighting, however, has potential pitfalls. While this type of lighting can lead to a vast reduction in energy consumption, it also creates the opportunity for increased lumen levels and brighter signs. History shows a consistent trend of efficiency gains being cancelled by increased energy use. In the past, new energy-efficient technologies that could reduce energy consumption while providing equivalent illumination have instead been used to provide more light. IDA realizes this danger and is implementing plans that correlate reductions in energy expenditure with reductions in night-sky brightness.

IDA is also aware of technological limitations. In 2010 the organization released a report on the effects of blue-rich LED lighting and has worked with the lighting industry to create and promote high-efficiency "warm" LEDs that have less impact on the night sky. This is the kind of cooperation and collaboration IDA has sought. [As this issue went to press, the IDA and the Illuminating Engineering Society jointly approved a Model Lighting Ordinance aimed at improving future outdoor lighting in North America. Details are available on the IDA website.]

The medical community has also revealed serious health consequences related to light at night (LAN). Research has shown that LAN can cause sleep disorders and interrupt the internal body clock, called circadian disruption, which has been linked to hypertension, attention-deficit disorder, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The World Health Organization identified shift work as a carcinogen in 2007. In 2009 the American Medical Association issued a resolution warning of the public safety hazard of unshielded streetlights (see page 86).

The health implications of excessive outdoor lighting will draw increasing government scrutiny. There is a tremendous need for additional research to pinpoint the correlation between LAN and human health. Similar research on wildlife and ecology is also necessary, as LAN has profound impacts on the natural environment as well.

The effects of light as a pollutant were given increased publicity at the fall 2010 meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Harald Stark (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) presented new research linking light pollution and air pollution. This ground-breaking study revealed that artificial skyglow reduces a naturally occurring nitrate radical that helps cleanse the atmosphere of exhaust and ozone. Scientists previously knew that sunlight inhibits the nitrate radical, but the new research shows that light pollution can significantly reduce the function of the nitrate radical, resulting in higher levels of air pollution.


The ramifications of this study are epic. Air quality is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Federal Clean Air Act. If light pollution can be shown to directly increase air pollution, the EPA will be required by law to take action to reduce the source of the air pollution. At long last the EPA will need to address light pollution as a pollutant. IDA, backed by several members of the U.S. House of Representatives, petitioned the EPA to address this issue in 2008 and to date has received no official response. IDA will leverage the new research when it renews its efforts to enlist Congress to increase pressure on the EPA to act. This singular development has the potential to change everything.

Open Skies

In 2006 IDA established the International Dark-Sky Places (IDSP) program to establish lasting protection for pristine dark skies. Patterned after the U.S. National Parks system, the program will protect this natural resource by designating areas that still have dark skies with the intent of preserving them for future generations. The program includes designations for Dark Sky Parks, Dark Sky Communities, and Developments of Distinction. Today, there are almost a dozen sites around the world, and applications for new sites to be designated as an IDSP are submitted on a regular basis.

While it is essential to preserve remote sites that show how nature intended the night sky to appear, many stargazers will never visit them, just as many people have never spent time in Yosemite or Glacier National Park. A whole generation of children is growing up in urban environments where light pollution blots out all but the Moon and a few of the brightest stars and planets. These kids don't have the chance to be inspired by the grandeur of the heavens because they simply can't see them. Long ago the IDA recognized that raising awareness of light pollution was the primary tool available to reduce it. If you've never see a beautiful night sky, how would you know what you're missing?

IDA is currently developing an initiative called Suburban Outreach Sites (SOS). A coalition of IDA volunteers, astronomy clubs, and educators is coordinating a worldwide network of observing sites that will serve as windows to the universe. By combining dark-sky awareness and astronomy outreach, we hope to energize both astronomy enthusiasts and IDA volunteers. The program establishes observing sites within an hour's drive of cities and towns where parents and teachers can take their kids to see the night sky. Local astronomy clubs have already selected many sites.

Once a location is designated a SOS, IDA will provide educational materials and financial support to retrofit the site's outdoor lighting. In some cases, telescopes and other observing equipment will be provided, as well as a night-sky brightness monitor (NSBM), which is exactly what it sounds like: a device to measure sky quality. There are several important reasons to do this, not the least of which is establishing a baseline of sky quality that can serve as a starting point for future light-pollution calculations.

A generous donation from a longtime IDA supporter, together with a grant from the National Science Foundation, enabled IDA to develop the NSBM project. The program will continuously monitor the quality of the night sky and feed that information to a web-accessible database that anyone can access in real time and evaluate changes in conditions. The first installations of NSBMs will happen this year at observatories, universities, and national parks. Future sites will include schools, IDSPs, and SOS, and the plan is to have hundreds in place during the next few years. As the installations grow, so will the ability to accurately model trends in light pollution. Because the data will be public, anyone can use it to assess degradation of dark skies and warn governments of trends. This will enable officials to take steps to reverse sky degradation, as well as to document improvements due to positive steps to reduce light pollution by communities nearby.


You Can Make a Difference

The campaign against light pollution is working and has yielded significant progress. Facts suggest that we are entering a critical period and a possible tipping point. Outdoor-lighting technology is experiencing a once-in-a-century transformation at the exact time that the attention on energy efficiency, environmental concerns, and economic stresses are forcing cities and governments to rethink how outdoor lighting is used.

This convergence may be a moment in time where the "stars align" and make tremendous changes possible. The need to think differently about lighting has never been as obvious to so many diverse parties as it is today. The one key ingredient to push the issue over the top is public opinion and involvement. Nothing motivates communities to make needed changes like informed and engaged advocates.

The opportunity of a lifetime is before us. IDA needs your help and support. You can make a difference. The amateur astronomy community is estimated to be millions worldwide. United, its combined voice for change would be difficult to ignore. This is a clear opportunity, and without making a commitment to be heard, we may let the possibility of reversing the trend of more outdoor lighting slip through our fingers. If we don't tell our leaders that we want sustainable, energy-efficient outdoor lighting, it will not happen.

When it comes to outdoor lighting, our primal fear of darkness can sometimes override solid evidence proving that more light does not improve safety. IDA has always promoted using just the amount of lighting necessary, directed toward the ground where it will be effective, and to use it only when needed.

I invite readers to join IDA now and let your voice be heard. With your support, together we will make sure that the balance finally tips in our favor, returning the night sky to the majestic beauty of the past. Please help a new generation become inspired by the grandeur of the Milky Way. ?

Sark Island: Europe's First Dark-Sky Community

The IDA's International Dark-Sky Places (IDSPlace) program is recognized worldwide as a permanent commitment to the nighttime environment and an important achievement in conservation. People visit IDSPlaces in part for innovative programs and "stellar" sky quality. Site-specific activities reflect local flavor, while interpretative programs, nocturnal wildlife tours, or night hikes emphasize the benefits of dark skies at these locations.

Steve Owens, a member of the British Astronomical Association's Campaign for Dark Skies and a driving force behind the IDSPlace designations for Scotland's Galloway Forest Park and Sark Island (a small island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy, France), thinks that enthusiasm for dark-sky conservation is helping reawaken the UK's interest in astronomy. Owens notes that as a coordinator for the International Year of Astronomy 2009, "We struggled to place astronomy stories in the mainstream media, except when it came to dark skies." Progress toward Galloway's designation seemed to be fueling press interest in astronomy programs, not the other way around. By the time the designation was awarded in November 2009, "There was nothing we could do to stop the publicity," recalls Owens.

The media frenzy is far from subsiding. The January 31, 2011, announcement of Sark Island's IDSPlace designation as Europe's first International Dark Sky Community made headline news. Already devoid of automobiles and public lighting, Sark Island's IDSCommunity status enhances the unique attractions offered by this tourist destination.

Success in West Texas

The Big Bend region of southwest Texas, known for the open vistas of the Chihuahuan Desert, is gaining fame for its campaign to protect some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S. With a limiting naked-eye magnitude of 7.0, a 12 1/2-inch telescope there reaches to magnitude 16 or 17 on a clear night, of which there are many. Viewing at the nearby McDonald Observatory (pictured below) typically occurs more than 300 nights per year.


In 2009 developer Gil Bartee formed a coalition within the town of Alpine's Chamber of Commerce to bring the economic and environmental benefits of the region's superb skies into focus for civic and business leaders. The movement's snowballing success came when it merged existing dark-sky awareness programs promoted by McDonald Observatory and astronomy clubs with benefits to local business.

Sierra la Rana, near Alpine, earned IDA's Development of Distinction award in 2009. The communities of Alpine and Lajitas are preparing to apply for the IDSCommunity designation. In June 2010, Alpine unanimously passed an ordinance requiring full shielding for new outdoor lighting, with the town of Van Horn approving identical legislation. Action in Marfa and Lajitas is underway.

Big Bend National Park's wide-scale lighting retrofits, which helped it earn the IDSPark award, extend to nearby businesses, where the switch to dimmable LEDs is saving up to 95% in energy output. In a pilot project among national parks, funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and partnerships with private donors are helping defray costs. Grass-root support outside the park is bolstered by the Big Bend Astronomical Society's Dark Sky Fund to retrofit private lighting. When preparations are complete, more than 1 million acres of near-pristine sky will be preserved!


To listen to a podcast interview with Bob Parks, visit

An avid amateur astronomer and past president of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, Bob Parks was appointed Executive Director of the IDA in June 2010.
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Title Annotation:Saving the Night Sky
Author:Parks, Bob
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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