A New Year’s Resolution

For 25 years the International Dark-Sky Association has been fighting light pollution, the single greatest threat to our enjoy­ment of the night sky. Isn't it time that amateur astronomers worldwide gave their full support to the IDA?

Many of us remember a time when the night sky was dark pretty much everywhere. I was particularly lucky, coming of age in a rural California town above which the stars shone like diamonds on black velvet. I could just walk outside on a summer's night and — wham! — the Milky Way practically assaulted my eyes.

Earth at night as seen from space
Light pollution plagues astronomers worldwide, as revealed in this nighttime image of Earth from space.
These days I'm on the other side of the country, but I can still see some of the Milky Way from my suburban home on a good night. I count myself among the more for­tu­nate in that respect. But the situation isn't perfect. Over time the light pollution from Boston and from the ugly commercial sprawl of nearby Nashua, New Hampshire, have nibbled away at my stars.

I'll bet you've experienced the same loss, if not worse. Most of you can't see the Milky Way from your backyard anymore. You probably don't spend as much time looking for meteors because skyglow washes out all the faint ones. In fact, you probably don't observe much now at all because the night sky just doesn't beckon the way it used to.

It doesn't have to be this way, y'know.

IDA co-founders Hunter and Crawford
Tim Hunter and David Crawford formed the International Dark-Sky Association in 1988 to combat light pollution. They were reunited in November 2013, at a meeting celebrating IDA's 25th anniversary.
IDA / Scott Kardel
In the late 1990s I began covering meetings of the International Dark-Sky Association for Sky & Telescope. The IDA got its start 25 years ago when David Crawford (a professional astronomer) and Tim Hunter (an amateur) joined forces in the astronomical mecca of Tucson, Arizona. The region was growing rapidly, and rampant outdoor lighting was threatening to compromise the pristine skies over neighboring Kitt Peak National Observatory.

Crawford and Hunter succeeded — today Tucson has tougher outdoor-lighting standards than any big city in the country, and Kitt Peak's night sky is still dark.

Meanwhile, the IDA's influence has grown steadily. Two years ago it created an award-winning video, Losing the Dark, that's been translated into 12 languages and downloaded for use by more than 800 planetariums worldwide. IDA's professional staff has competed for, won, and executed a turtle-habitat restoration project for the State of Florida. And lighting manufacturers are lining up to get an IDA Fixture Seal of Approval on their hardware.

LED streetlight
LED streetlights are likely coming to your community, if they're not there already. Depending on the type chosen, these have the potential to reduce — or increase — light pollution in the sky above them. The best night-sky-friendly outdoor lights have earned a Fixture Seal of Approval from the International Dark-Sky Association.
J. Kelly Beatty
Just last month, the fight against light pollution was featured in Men's Journal (1 million readers) and on CBS This Morning (3 million viewers).

All of this warms my heart. It means "light pollution" is something that most everyday people have heard about and many care about. It means that the subject has caught on with lighting professionals, environmentalists, human-health specialists, and urban planners. It means that there's hope, a chance, that over time the spread of light pollution will not only be slowed but even reversed.

Here's the problem, though: The IDA isn't getting enough support from the very individuals who stand to gain the most from its success: amateur and professional astronomers. Statistically, only about one of every 100 backyard stargazers is an IDA member. How sad.

urban observer
You can still observe the night sky from an urban setting, but it isn't easy. S&T Associate Editor Tony Flanders checks out Messier objects from this light-polluted hilltop above what once was a Cambridge, Massachusetts, garbage dump.
Sure, most of you will nod knowingly, even sympathetically, whenever the subject of light pollution is brought up. That's a start, but how about showing some real support for the cause? You can join the IDA for a modest $35 per year. That's probably comparable to what you pay to belong to your local astronomy club. For the cost of a single high-end eyepiece, you could remain an IDA member for 10 years.

So what have I done about light pollution, you might ask in reply? A decade ago, when I stepped away from working on Sky & Telescope to become editor of its sibling publication, Night Sky, I made the decision to get seriously involved in the light-pollution fight. I taught myself the technicalities of illumination. I threw myself into creating outdoor-lighting ordinances at the local and state level. I got elected to the IDA's Board of Directors and, today, serve as its vice president. And I talk about our vanishing night sky to whomever will listen.

Those who frequent this website know that we S&T editors don't get on a soapbox very often. But this is one of those times. If just one in 10 of you were to join the IDA, its membership would double. So please do join or make a donation. It's a modest resolution to make for the coming year — and one that'll be easy to keep.

2 thoughts on “A New Year’s Resolution

  1. Anthony Barreiro

    Thanks Kelly for this timely reminder and exhortation. I’m proud to be a member of the International Dark Sky Association. Unlike other forms of pollution which can be very persistent and require years or decades to clean up, the solution to light pollution can be as simple as turning off a switch. My new year’s resolution (even before I read your article) is to decrease the worsening light pollution in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Any readers in the SF Bay Area who are interested in organizing a local IDA chapter, please send me an email — anthonybarreiro (at) yahoo (dot) com.

  2. Kevin Sweeney

    Thank you for your article Kelly. A dark night sky is a disappearing resource that your National Parks are very interested preserving and protecting for future generations. For many visitors, the only time they experience a dark sky is when they peak out of their tent while visiting a park. Many need to be convinced that the Milky Way is not a cloud. To raise awareness of the conservation of our remaining dark skies, many National Parks hold festivals and astronomy programs to share this important resource. The International Dark Sky Association is involved in many. Here at Lassen, in the dark corner of northern California, our festival will be August 1-3, 2014. More information can be found here: http://www.nature.nps.gov/night/index.cfm

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