Light Pollution in the Spotlight

Amateur astronomers, more than most, realize that artificial skyglow is slowly robbing us of the beauty of the night sky. But licking light pollution has not been easy.

For two decades the International Dark-Sky Association has waged a campaign to raise awareness about Public Enemy #1, astronomically speaking. There have been some modest, hard-won successes over the years. For example, lighting specialists and their companies have finally tooled up to make a variety of night-sky-friendly fixtures available to contractors and the general public. Also, hundreds of towns and a few states have enacted laws that require well-shielded lighting for new developments.

Yet drawing widespread attention to light pollution, especially at the state and federal level, has been difficult. As you might expect, Sky & Telescope has always supported the IDA's efforts, but coverage was spotty elsewhere in the news media.

My, how things have changed!

Over the summer, IDA teams presented the case against light pollution to both House and Senate staffers in Washington, and a bipartisan coalition of 11 House members sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency's administrator requesting action on the situation.

And the past year has seen a veritable explosion of light-pollution stories. The salvo began last year with a feature article in The New Yorker, followed by an editorial in the Boston Globe.

Light pollution cover story
National Geographic Society
The pace picked up over this past summer: an in-depth story in July 25th's Wall Street Journal, a prominent op-ed piece in September 23rd's Boston Globe, and an October 7th editorial in the New York Times.

And, finally, the pièce de résistance: the cover story of National Geographic's November 2008 issue. The article is grippingly titled "The End of Night" — to which I might add: "Light Pollution — It's Not Just About Astronomers Any More."

But astronomers are still key allies in this fight, and now it's your turn to help: participate in the Great Worldwide Star Count from now through November 3rd — and become a member of the IDA.

11 thoughts on “Light Pollution in the Spotlight

  1. Greg

    I’m not too surprised that there are 0 comments on this article even 3 days after it was posted. It seems most amateur astronomers are not really concerned with light pollution–judging by the fact that very few S&T subscribers belong to the IDA. Almost none of my fellow astronomy club members are involved with light pollution issues or belong to the IDA. As former S&T editor Rick Feinberg lamented in an editorial last year, you would think we amateurs would be leading the charge about this pernicious issue.

    Every time I set up my scope during our club’s monthly sidewalk astronomy sessions, I hand out brochures from the IDA and make a point to discuss the problem of light pollution with the public. Virtually none of my fellow club members do so…

    Is this because many advanced amateurs can do imaging from their suburban driveways and still be able to get good pictures of deepsky objects? And are others more used to sitting in front of the computer screen looking at those lovely Hubble images?

    Come on, amateurs! Get involved! Join the IDA, learn something about this issue!

  2. Robert Black

    I have been concerned about the light pollution issue every since flying to Texas from Toronto one evening. Until then I had not realized the extent of this problem.
    I certainly would like help in the problem and will join IDA
    immediately.
    I believe the problem with amateur astronomers is not apathy but rather just not knowing what we can do about it.
    I’m sure all of us would appreciate it if you could give us some suggestion as to what we as one person can do to help the cause.
    Also, I would like to comment that the local municipalities are a very large source of the problem.
    Regards, Bob.

  3. Gary Citro

    In NY (of all places) we came very close to adopting the strongest statewide legislation in the land to control light pollution nearly ten years ago. The vested interests got to then Governor Pataki and he vetoed the legislation. Softer versions of the bill pass the state Assembly every year, and die in the Senate. We’ve got a better shot this year with the energy crisis hitting everyone’s pocketbook and with the need for reduction of the carbon footprint.
    But Astronomers have been NOTICEABLY absent.
    We need more feet on the ground and mors letters written to reps. CCD is great but it should NEVER replace good old fashoined observational telescope and naked eye astronomy!
    Please go to the SELENE site: http://www.selene-ny.org to see how you can help.
    There is also a NY IDA Section now.

  4. Nathaniel Sailor

    Light Pollution is a very serious issuse and us amateur astromers sould bring this issue up more often. In the sector of Ft. Wayne I live in, I can look at the area were the Orion Nebula is to be found and find stars only. As a high schooler with no job, I’m not going to mommy begging for money for a light pollution filiter. And besides a light pollution filter is not going to solve all the problems. We do need to bring the light level down a few!

  5. FER

    While National Geographic was a highly influential magazine decades ago, it is now much less significant (when I explain those wonderful old issues filled with science and beautiful imagery to people too young to know, I say, “National Geographic was the World Wide Web back when the Internet was made of paper”)

    But for well-known references to light pollution, don’t forget the episode of “The Simpsons” (which aired in 2003) in which the problem of light pollution is highlighted and then mocked as a concern of goofy astronomers. The episode’s title, by the way, was “Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky” and, of course, it has its very own Wikipedia entry:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scuse_Me_While_I_Miss_The_Sky

  6. FER

    Greg, you wrote that most amateur astronomers are not concerned about light pollution. I don’t think that’s really what’s going on here. Most of the backyard astronomers that I know are very concerned by light pollution but they have become convinced that there is no hope. All these “laws” designed to reduce light pollution seem to accomplish nothing (optimistically, perhaps they reduce the growth rate of light pollution from 2.5% annually to 2.49%). Bright exterior lights continue to be installed everywhere. Even farmland in the Midwest is awash in the glow of privately-purchase Merccury vapor street lights. In my own neighborhood, three very bright (but energy efficient!) exterior lights have been installed in the past two months alone.

    Additionally, astronomy enthusiasts who speak publicly on this issue inevitably sound frivolous and even out of touch with reality. Is some backyard astronomer’s view of the Orion Nebula really more important than controlling crime and preventing traffic accidents? Or even, is the view of the Orion Nebula more important than the local supermarket’s need to advertise with a prominent display of lights? How do we make our interests not seem frivolous? The short answer, I think, is to recognize that the wishes of skywatchers are not more important, rather they are ALSO important. We can have it both ways with some creative thinking. How about dark skies Sunday through Wednesday??
    🙂

  7. paul

    pity this poor amateur astronomer. my wife and i just completed the purchase of a new home. we have not even moved in yet. but last night, my wife was telling me how we need floodlights to keep possible nighttime visitors safe! i hope i explained, without too much rancor, that i had a slight concern with nighttime illumination and that I would see to the exterior lighting of the new house. my own wife, a light polluter.

  8. Bob Amos

    In the 1970’s I was teaching physics in South Australia. I lived in a small rural town with modest street lighting from fluorescent tubes on telephone poles. One was right in front of my house. I soon discovered that the Electricity Trust in town would turn them off about 11:00 pm each night to save energy from the coal fired power plants. This forced me to be a bit of a night-owl for my observing sessions, but it was a very nice compromise. Wish that was a widespread practice here!

    Bob
    Northern Missouri

  9. Greg

    FER, you make some excellent points, and I agree that most amateurs are indeed aware of the issue and feel helpless to do anything about it. What they can do, however, is take small steps: learn something about this problem, discuss it with others when talking about astronomy, and join the IDA. I know it seems as if light pollution is increasing, and it probably is. A large part of the reason for that is the regional, “grassroots” nature of the solution; i.e., individual communities around the country (and world) take on the issue a little bit at a time and in different ways. But, since most social, economic, environmental problems are solved at the grassroots level, this is the best way to proceed with light pollution, I believe.
    As I said, I pass out brochures from the IDA EVERY time I do sidewalk astronomy. (Being an IDA member, I requested some materials to hand out to the public, and they obliged with a box of hundreds of free brochures!) I’ve written a letter to the editor of my local paper, which was printed. From that, I received a letter from my city’s lighting director–he’d read my letter–telling me that our lighting ordinance includes restrictions on light trespass and other issues. In other words, small steps taken by individuals do lead to results.
    And, you point out a very important point: We have to make clear that light pollution is much more than a bother to amateur astronomers’ view of the night sky! It is harmful to wildlife–migrating birds, nesting sea turtles, etc.; possibly to human health as well; and wastes enormous amounts of energy, which translates to higher energy costs for communities and the taxpayers. I make a point to make this clear when discussing light pollution out there on the sidewalk.

  10. Gil

    We are a group in the Big Bend Region of Texas near the McDonald Observatory. Our mission is to educate the public on light pollution and to seek donations to fund the replacement of non compliant lighting with dark sky friendly fixtures throughout the communities we serve. Our website URL is http://www.bigbenddarkskies.com. One of our first steps shall be to distribute posters to educate the public and once we have sufficient funding we plan to hire a project manager to work with public and private individuals to replace fixtures with Dark Sky Friendly fixtures. We have support from several members of the McDonald Observatory located in the Big Bend Region among others throughout other states in the US. Another one of our objectives is to work on a book regarding Dark Skies and Light Pollution. For more information please visit our website. For more information please visit our website.

  11. Henry Molesky

    With the November issue of National Geographic’s Light Pollution story I decided to get involved in the fight.
    I have been a member of IDA for several years and did nothing because I thought to myself, “what can one person do”? Then I came across this article called, “Wings of a Butterfly” and I was instantly inspired. This is part of the article: “The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in a certain location.” Do a Google search for more.
    Anyway I was touched by this that a butterfly flapping its wings could cause or delay a tornado and what one person could do if he in turn told people about the problem of light pollution and as a result I went to the IDA site and printed out light pollution brochures, packed my telescope, when down to Ybor City Florida and setup on the sidewalk showing people Jupiter & passing out brochures. Today I downloaded IDA’s information and made a tri-fold display on light pollution and am heading back down to Ybor Centro for another talk & handouts. People are listening and I believe this will make a difference.
    This is only the beginning.

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