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Published: Sunday, 3/23/2003

Artificial light upsets nature, stargazers

A growing, glaring problem threatens both wildlife and the night-time environment, and a concerted nationwide, if not worldwide, effort to solve it is long overdue.

The problem is light pollution of the night skies, caused by too much and improperly designed lighting.

Ever take your children out in the backyard after “dark” and try to show them the stars? What stars? The oft-romanced Milky Way is but a myth to most urbanites.

All that most of us see anymore are ever-spreading domes of wasteful, useless lighting glare over our communities. One must be situated well into the countryside, well away from even more over-illuminated farmsteads to see the real night sky.

What little research has been done so far on the unthinking, profligate use of lighting - and the consequent dimming of nature's nighttime spectacles and wildlife behavior - has not been encouraging.

Along the Atlantic seaboard, for example, researchers have discovered that newly hatched loggerhead turtles can die when drawn inland - the wrong direction - by artificial light. City glare confounds their instincts to follow moonglow to the safety of the sea.

Similarly, a Texas group contends that the glare of overabundant, poorly designed night-lights, used to deter illegal immigration across the Mexican border, has disrupted the nighttime behavior of the ocelot, a small, wild cat.

It is strongly suspected that more study of nocturnal wildlife behavior would show even more widespread impacts on more species. Unlike most humans - at least the urbanized ones isolated from nature by concrete and steel - wild creatures embrace the darkness. Indeed many of them make their livings, so to say, on the night shift.

On the other hand, any night-driving motorist can understand the eye-numbing impact of misdirected glare from headlights.

The bright side to this dark, often unrecognized problem is that sensible, economical solutions already are at hand. All it takes is the intelligence to use them. In two words, the answer is smart lighting.

“Most people think that more is better and that isn't true,” states Elizabeth Alvarez, associate director of the International Dark-Sky Association, of Tucson. Often lighting provided nowadays is 5, 10, 50, 100 times more than is actually needed, she adds.

Concerns about losing the beauty and spectacle of the night sky arose around Tucson and elsewhere in southern Arizona decades ago. The region is the home of several astronomical research observatories, their mountaintop sites selected by universities and research institutions specifically because of the lack of interference from urban lighting. That was then.

But as urban sprawl has spread its ugly cancer across southern Arizona, as elsewhere, the night glare was turned up and research stargazing was increasingly imperiled. The solution has been to develop smart lighting - shielded lights, for example, that reduce omnidirectional glare and direct light to where it is needed.

The technology is getting better and better, Alvarez notes. The IDA is holding its 15th annual meeting at Tucson through today, and it continues to spread the smart-light gospel.

Well-designed lighting, Alvarez said, saves energy, is good for the environment, and helps reduce glare and improve visibility. “You get rid of the glare and you see better. You don't need to do [lighting] business as usual.”

Homeowners, for example, are better off using motion sensors that trigger floodlights to foil trespassers or potential burglars, Alvarez said. The usual glare from typical security lighting actually emits such a contrasting glare that it can give prowlers, who can hide in the shadows, an even better advantage.

Throughout its discussions and materials it is clear that IDA is not anti-lighting. It simply is trying to educate the public - and business, industry, and government - about ignorant and inappropriate lighting.

In the last few years, Alvarez said, the smart-lighting trend has grown, as have such professional lighting associations as the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America and International Association of Lighting Designers.

Among notables signers-on to implementing broad programs of smart lighting are the state of Colorado and Europe's Czech Republic.

A grassroots campaign -National Dark-Sky Week - to highlight the beauty of the night sky and to draw attention to increasing levels of light pollution was begun a year ago by 15-year-old Jennifer Barlow, a high school student in Virginia. She wants to become an astrophysicist.

“I've been interested in astronomy and have been taking it in school,” she said in an interview. “I saw that light pollution was a problem and decided to do something about it.”

A lover of the night sky, the teen contacted IDA and ended up initiating the weeklong dark-sky celebration, which this year is being observed April 1 through 8. During the period the public is urged to organize impromptu star parties and visit planetariums or local public observatories. Or just go outside to a safe but dark location and enjoy the night sky.

National Dark-Sky Week is endorsed by the American Astronomical Society, the IDA, Sky and Telescope magazine, and the Astronomical League, a nonprofit federation of 250 astronomical societies with nearly 20,000 members.

For more information on the week, visit this Web site: www.nationaldarksky week.htmlplanet.com

For more information about the IDA, visit www.darksky.org.

A personal thought: Half of your life is spent in darkness. It is time to reconnect with it.



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