A Day for Earth, but a Whole Week for Dark Skies


Wednesday is Earth Day, but all week — Monday, April 20 through Saturday, April 26 — is National Dark Sky Week in America, when people are asked to dim the lights to see more stars.

If enough people participate, backyard and professional astronomers might be treated with a week of darker, starrier skies. The bigger idea is to raise awareness about sensible lighting practices, so skies might get a little bit darker all the time. And not just for astronomy buffs. Besides aesthetics, evidence is mounting that light pollution could have far-reaching effects for the environment and even public health.

360-degree panoramic picture of the Milky Way as seen from Death Valley. Credit: Dan Duriscoe, National Park Service.

Jennifer Barlow, founder of the event, said the only way National Dark Sky Week can succeed is if more people participate every year. “No reduction in light pollution can be made unless a significant number of people turn off their lights,” she said.

Besides turning out the lights, the participating groups are encouraging people to attend star parties, visit local observatories, or “dust off the old telescope from the attic,” Barlow said.

Year-round, the International Dark Sky Association encourages people to shield lights, or use fixtures that focus light downward instead of up into the sky. Reducing extraneous light, especially at ball fields, is a major step in the right direction. And certain types of lighting — like low-pressure sodium — are better than others.

Flagstaff, Arizona became the world’s first International Dark-Sky City in 2001, owing to the presence of several important observatories — it’s the home of Lowell Observatory and the U.S. Naval Observatory — along with the dedicated efforts of a handful of astronomers. The city government and the vast majority of businesses have readily complied with responsible lighting codes to protect views of the night sky for residents and astronomers alike. 

The skies are noticeably dark over Flagstaff; the stars are rich at night. The Grand Canyon is even more impressive, especially on the north side. The views after dark are as stunning and magical as those during  the day.

But even those skies aren’t as good as they could be, because light pollution from cities up to 200 miles away — including Las Vegas and Phoenix — is gradually creeping in. Chad Moore, a dark skies advocate who works for the National Park Service in Denver, has spent nearly a decade documenting the skies over 55 of the nation’s parks, which are usually the best places to see stars.

Parts of rare parks — Capitol Reef, Great Basin and Big Bend among them — boast truly dark skies, he said.

Moore pointed out there are reasons besides beauty to rein in light pollution: “In the last 10 years there has been a revolution in our understanding of animal habitat and what animals require,” he said. “There are links between artificial light and cancer in humans. There’s a lot we didn’t know about.”

Second photo caption: 360-degree panoramic picture of the Milky Way as seen from Death Valley. Credit: Dan Duriscoe, National Park Service.

For more information:

National Dark Sky Week 
International Dark-Sky Association
IYA Dark Skies Awareness
Starlight Initiative
World Night in Defense of Starlight
American Astronomical Society
Astronomical League

7 Replies to “A Day for Earth, but a Whole Week for Dark Skies”

  1. This may seem fine and dandy for individuals,however, the public works street light and business lighting are very glary and light polluting. Drive on a relatively dark interstate for a few hours ,get to an offramp that has services, the tall lights are blinding and harse. There will be about 3 petrol stations and perhaps a resturant or 2 and perhaps a motel, but the lighting is enough for a small city. Over 95% of the lighting is wasted, a waste of electrical energy!!!
    Over 90% of outdoor lighting is wasted energy, the streets can be lite up safely for pedestrran safety and without causing glare and the business lighting can be far more effective subdued and still be visible,just think of the energy cost the US can save by thinking better outdoor lighting!!!

  2. Thanks for the story & links, Anne, to highlight this issue of light pollution. I’m glad to see some in the National Park Service have for some time recognized a need to preserve dwindling dark sky areas in the United States. Light pollution and light trespass affect more than just stargazers. Issues of poorly designed lighting, security, human health issues, disruption of nocturnal animal activity & economics can all be brought to bear on resolving or mitigating the problem. Obviously, this problem is not unique to the US, and it’s encouraging to see other countries take meaningful steps toward reducing light pollution. I strongly urge all interested readers to at least check out the International Dark Sky site for tips on how individuals can play an important role in bringing public and governmental attention to this problem & how to effectively argue for change.

  3. Star Grazer- I agree- the massive overhead lights can be nearly blinding. These lights are an enormous expense on the taxpayers- especially when so many folks are losing their homes but the Local/State and Federal governments just keep on foolishly spending money and wasting resources as if they are infinite. We are out of money and one of these days we will run out of the natural resources that fuel our economies as well as the lights.
    Looking at the picture above it is obvious who uses the most resources on earth- the US-Europe- India-Japan. The photo put together in 1995- I wonder if the Earth is even brighter at night now.
    For some reason many people believe that keeping their personal exterior lights on at night helps to prevent crime. There may be some truth to this fact but you cannot prove it by me- a good barking dog works much better.
    Lets turn out some lights- save some money and-save some resources for our grandchildren.

  4. You would think that that for commercial reasons alone, industry and business would dim the lights. Why so many street lights especially on motorways when all cars have headlights. Let’s face it, to waste natural resources in such a profligate manner, they must be too cheap.

  5. It truly is sad – I simply cannot see how this battle will ever be won. The absolute best that can be hoped for in my view is a decrease in the rate at which light pollution increases.

    Living in Australia, I feel pretty confident that I’ll always have access to pristine skies, albeit with an increasingly long drive-time to get there. I feel sorry for amateur astronomers in America in particular – the heartland of the hobby. Looking at the light pollution maps released by NASA, it is hard to believe that there is any truly dark skies left at all on the continent. It is an even sadder indictment that, when campaigning against light pollution, it is unwise to mention that maintaining dark skies is a prime reason and a worthy cause. It is likely to get you laughed out of the room – nobody could care less. One has to tiptoe around that and mention the peripheral issues of power savings and ‘light trespass’ as the prime motivators. No holding up progress, eh?

    The situation reminds me of a Bruce Dawe poem called ‘Enter Without So Much As Knocking’ – a sad commentary on the state of affairs of the world. Excerpt:

    “…However, what he enjoyed most of all was when they went to the late show at the local drive-in, on a clear night and he could see (beyond the fifty-foot screen where giant faces forever snarled screamed or make incomprehensible and monstrous love) a pure
    unadulterated fringe of sky, littered with stars
    no-one had got around to fixing up yet: he’d watch them circling about in luminous groups like kids at the circus who never go quite close enough to the elephant to get kicked.

    Anyway, pretty soon he was old enough to be
    realistic like every other godless money-hungry back-stabbing miserable so-and-so, and then it was goodbye stars…”

  6. There is hope, stargazers. We will shortly be forced to turn the lights out or pay through the nose. The Obama administration and the Congress are initiating policies that will likely cause energy prices to more than double when new energy taxes, energy regulations, energy-use penalties, and energy cap-and-trade expenses are passed along to consumers. Google “obama energy prices” for the scoop.

    Seriously though, as a northern Michigan stargazer for many decades, I’ve noticed the “light pollution” encroach into even the more isolated areas here.

    Bottom line: I would rather see educated people choose sensible energy use voluntarily than be coerced by government policy.

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