Connect with the Galaxy: A case for turning out the lights

Connect with the Galaxy: A case for turning out the lights

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A tent on the Baker River. Andy Porter photo.
A tent on the Baker River. Andy Porter photo.

Story by Oliver Lazenby

In 1994 when the Northridge earthquake knocked out power across Los Angeles, astronomers at Griffith Observatory, just north of Hollywood, fielded calls from people wondering why the sky looked so strange. Ed Krupp, director of the observatory, realized callers were so unfamiliar with the sight of stars they didn’t know what they were looking at, he told the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angelenos are not alone in their stellar ignorance. The millions of swirling stars that make up the Milky Way are hard for most people to see. Two-thirds of Americans can’t see the rest of our galaxy from their homes because of all the artificial light that floods the sky and blots out the stars, according to a 2015 study in the journal Park Science. Many have never seen the Milky Way at all.

The globe is getting brighter by the day. Photos from space show lights metastasizing over time in already-bright places and reaching farther into islands of darkness, like a pinball machine coming to life in a dark parlor.

In the Pacific Northwest, we’ve got it pretty good. Bob Berman, author and astronomer, figures an observer has to be able to see about 450 stars to appreciate the night sky. In North Cascades National Park, one can see more than six times that many on a clear night, according to park service research.

Still, North Cascades National Park isn’t immune to light pollution and it’s not as dark as many other places in the West. Parts of Southeastern Utah, Arizona, Death Valley and even parts of North-Central Oregon are darker.

The Milky Way above a camp in the North Cascades. Radka Chapin photo.
The Milky Way above a camp in the North Cascades. Radka Chapin photo.

“North Cascades has great night skies, but if you’re looking west you’re seeing these massive city light domes that affect your night vision,” said Bob Meadows, a scientist with the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies division. “There’s no easy solution to that right now.”

Meadows is one of four people on the National Park Service’s night sky team. The team measures darkness in national parks throughout the country. They camp out in remote parks and measure light with scientific instruments with a goal of providing data that can be used for public outreach and to understand how the sky is changing.

Their measurements produce a theoretical number of stars visible. In North Cascades National Park, that number was more than 3,000 at three separate locations in a 2012 study. That’s more stars than are visible in Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks.

Meadows, a Los Angeles native, joined the night sky team after decades of exploring and working in the backcountry of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

“When you experience a truly dark night sky you want to preserve it. For the park service, it’s a natural fit. We can do something to provide these sanctuaries where people can go and experience a dark sky,” Meadows said.

Though the glowing orange domes that hang above Vancouver, Bellingham and Seattle impact the skies above North Cascades National Park, the park’s very proximity to cities presents millions of people an opportunity to experience a truly dark night sky.

And experiencing a dark sky, Meadows learned, is a precursor to protecting it. Though the park service can try to preserve darkness through outreach, there’s little else they can do to stop cities like Bellingham and Vancouver from getting brighter, Meadows said.

Richard Just, a longtime astronomer, doesn’t see much hope for preserving a dark sky as nearby cities keep growing.

“I remember going to places on the fringe of Ferndale and seeing a lot of stars. It’s not like that anymore,” said Just, treasurer of the Whatcom Association of Celestial Observers, a club that holds stargazing parties twice a month – weather permitting – at Artist Point.

Now, Just doesn’t bother stargazing in many places other than Artist Point, at the end of Highway 542. “Artist Point is far and away the best accessible location in the county,” he said.

The illuminated planet doesn’t just steal our view of the cosmos. A lack of real darkness has serious impacts on birds that migrate at night and squeezes a whole host of nocturnal creatures into a shrinking habitat.

For humans, night-time exposure to artificial light may have serious health effects. In 2007 the World Health Organization classified night shift work as a probable carcinogen, a status also accorded to lead, creosote and DDT.

Perhaps the brightest side of the light pollution problem is that it can be reversed with the flip of a switch. A few places are making strides in restoring their view of the cosmos. Flagstaff, Arizona, became the world’s first International Dark Sky City in 2001, and several dozen communities around the planet have followed suit by adopting lighting ordinances. Individuals can make a difference by replacing outdoor lights with low-glare, shielded fixtures, or simply turning them off.

“Unlike wildlife issues or water or geology or a lot of other things, the night sky is 100 percent restorable. It’s still up there exactly as it was 100,000 years ago,” Meadows said. “It’s just a matter of how much we care about making it accessible.”

In Meadows’ experience, more and more people care every year. Such night-sky-related programs as star parties and guided moonlight walks are currently the park service’s most popular programs.

“We know that the interest from the public is there,” Meadows said. “They’re attending programs in numbers that the park service has never seen.”   x