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Making War On Light Pollution 437

Posted by kdawson
from the if-i-could-save-time-in-a-bortle dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Almost thirty years ago I worked in the Middle East helping install a nationwide communications system and had the opportunity to be part of a team doing microwave link tests across Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter. Something I've never forgotten were the astonishing nights I spent in the desert hundreds of miles from the nearest city where the absence of light made looking at the sky on a moonless night feel like you were floating in the middle of the galaxy. In Galileo's time, nighttime skies all over the world would have merited the darkest Bortle ranking, Class 1. Today, the sky above New York City is Class 9 and American suburban skies are typically Class 5, 6, or 7. The very darkest places in the continental United States today are almost never darker than Class 2, and are increasingly threatened. Read a story from the New Yorker on what we have lost to light pollution and how some cities are adopting outdoor lighting standards to save the darkness."
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Making War On Light Pollution

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  • Bah (Score:5, Funny)

    by EvanED (569694) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .denave.> on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:21PM (#20523707)
    Someone's firing too much magic missile.
  • We should be making love on light pollution, not war!
    • We should be making love on light pollution, not war!

      No, it is make install. How many times do I have to tell you that you get things done by make install?
  • It's true (Score:5, Interesting)

    by wamerocity (1106155) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:26PM (#20523735) Journal
    I live in Salt Lake City, and the light pollution here is just like any other city. My favorite place is to visit Lake Powell, near the Arizona border where there are no city lights for at least 50-100 miles.

    I always thought it would be nice if we had one day a year where people made a conscious effort to turn off all their lights, like "Star's Day" or some other stupid name so people could have one night a year to keep lights off, but that would inevitably just lead to an increase in crime for that night, so... darn.

    We'll just have to enjoy it when I'm camping.
    • Re:It's true (Score:5, Informative)

      by CoralCain2002 (592657) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:43PM (#20524263)
      I have a friend who lives in Park City, UT who got fed up enough with the local light pollution that he decided to do something about it. He founded a company that only sells dark sky friendly lights. Its called Starry Night Lights http://www.starrynightlights.com/ [starrynightlights.com]. Check it out if you really want to do your part.
    • I always thought it would be nice if we had one day a year where people made a conscious effort to turn off all their lights, like "Star's Day" or some other stupid name so people could have one night a year to keep lights off, but that would inevitably just lead to an increase in crime for that night, so... darn.

      We had something similar here recently, but it wasn't for the benefit of the stars. There was a "turn off all your lights to save power and reduce global warming" night. I participated mostly be

    • Re:It's true (Score:5, Informative)

      by Polumna (1141165) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @09:11PM (#20524873)

      ... but that would inevitably just lead to an increase in crime for that night, so... darn.
      Actually, I read an article in Sky & Telescope (I think... might have been Astronomy) a year or so ago that addressed this. They cited studies that suggested that lighting areas has no effect on crime, but rather on the perception of safety. Consequently, (this is purely my conjecture) using fewer lights may just make people be more careful because they feel endangered, thus having a net reduction in crime, as well as making the sky a prettier place.
      • Re:It's true (Score:5, Insightful)

        by bzipitidoo (647217) <bzipitidoo@yahoo.com> on Sunday September 09, 2007 @02:44AM (#20526553) Journal
        Security is the ultimate bad justification, and knee jerk reaction to anything couched as the least threatening. Gated communities, fences around apartment complexes, hostility towards foot and bike trails (because criminals are more likely to be too poor to afford a car), and older cheaper housing, proactive continuously operating computer virus scanning software that makes computers run 10% slower, the invasion of Iraq, airport security measures, locked doors on stairwells so people can't "sneak up" the stairs, the response bank customer service reps too often puke out on why they can't do something or why you must put up with something, DRM, big cars, snooping and spying, and of course lights. It's amazing how all rational discussion of costs and benefits can be short circuited by playing that trump card, "security".
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mr_matticus (928346)
        Only on Slashdot would someone support such an argument. The perception of safety is what matters to people. The actual statistics on crime (or anything else) are never as important as what people think about them.

        If street lights make people feel safer, then there will be street lights. It doesn't matter that much if it actually works or not. Arguing for a public policy that makes people "feel endangered" is grounded in fantasy. Further, the premise that people feeling more in danger will have a net r
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by KDR_11k (778916)
        Streetlights protect you from the dogshit that's everywhere these days.
    • crime (Score:5, Informative)

      by falconwolf (725481) <falconsoaring_2000 AT yahoo DOT com> on Saturday September 08, 2007 @09:40PM (#20525033)

      I always thought it would be nice if we had one day a year where people made a conscious effort to turn off all their lights, like "Star's Day" or some other stupid name so people could have one night a year to keep lights off, but that would inevitably just lead to an increase in crime for that night, so... darn.

      Not really, criminals need light too. And as TFA says when San Antonio started turning lights off at night at schools vandalism went down not up.

      Falcon
  • morals. (Score:4, Funny)

    by nawcom (941663) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:27PM (#20523745) Homepage
    A couple that was married for 20 years always made love with the lights off.

    Well, after 20 years, the wife felt this was ridiculous. She figured she would break him out of this crazy habit.

    So one night, while they were in the middle of a wild, screaming, romantic session, she turned the lights on.

    She looked down... and saw that her husband was holding a battery-operated pleasure device -- a vibrator -- softer and larger than a real penis.

    She went completely ballistic. "You impotent bastard," she screamed at him, "how could you be lying to me all of these years? You better explain yourself!"

    The husband looks her straight in the eyes and says calmly:

    "I'll explain the toy... if you explain the kids."

    Moral of the story? everyone is happy when you turn the lights off at night.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by MarkRose (820682)
      Thank you for that illuminating story. Yet another example that people take serious discussion on pollution far too lightly.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510)

      She looked down... and saw that her husband was holding a battery-operated pleasure device -- a vibrator -- softer and larger than a real penis.
      Softer?
  • San Jose (Score:3, Informative)

    by doxology (636469) <cozzydNO@SPAMmit.edu> on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:30PM (#20523759) Homepage
    In San Jose, all the white streetlamps were replaced with low pressure Sodium lamps so that light pollution would not impact research at nearby Lick Observatory [wikipedia.org] so much. Not only are they not as bright, but (more importantly) they're monochromatic and can easily be filtered. If more cities adopted these, we'd be able to see the stars much better (with the right optical filter, of course).

    Unfortunately, a lot of citizens of San Jose want white lights for some reason (especially car dealerships), so I don't know how much longer that'll last.

    • Allow white lights until say 10, and then after that require just the yellow lights. When I was a kid, I grew up in the country and can remember the stars that I saw. It was incredible. Now, whenever I look out there, it is just a fraction. But it is not just Light pollution.

      My father was a pilot on b-49's and other miltary aircrafts, and later on the commercial aircrafts. He was telling me about the stars that he used to see in the 40's (from the ground),50's (from the planes),and somewhat into the 60s,
      • I hate to have to tell you this, but it is much more likely that you father's vision is deteriorating. The atmosphere is very thin at 55 thousand feet, and contains even less particulate matter, so there is no way that air pollution is affecting the view from that altitude.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by TapeCutter (624760)
        That would indicate that nowhere on Earth could you get a "darkness" that existed in the 50's and I find that kinda hard to belive since particulate pollution in the form of sulphur and soot was worse then than it is now and as another post pointed out has little affect at high altitude. Also I assume if he flew planes in the 50's your dad is now a passenger and (besides the double glazing) the inside of a modern commercial jet is probably a lot brighter than the cockpit of a B49.

        Speaking as someone who
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Reziac (43301) *
      Coloured lights may have their uses, but they wreak havoc with your vision.

      My truck is a light jade green (Ford Puke Green). Long Beach CA has yellow sodium lights. My truck is completely invisible under those lights -- to the point that I once lost it in an otherwise-empty parking lot, and only rediscovered it by nearly walking into it. This despite that I have VERY good night vision. And as I drove down the street, I was amused by the illusion that my front hood was missing.... and was glad to be the only
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by TapeCutter (624760)
        "My truck is completely invisible under those lights"

        Driver: I was turning right officer when I spotted this guy was hovering 4' above the ground, he was travelling along the road with a lunchbox and newspaper like he was driving an invisible truck or something...next thing I knew I hit the tree.

        Officer: We better get you checked out for concussion.
    • Re:San Jose (Score:4, Informative)

      by Alioth (221270) <no@spam> on Sunday September 09, 2007 @04:57AM (#20527061) Journal
      Low pressure sodium lights are also much more efficient - they are the most efficient lights we have. Added to that they emit light at the wavelengths that human vision is most sensitive, boosting their effective efficiency since you need fewer watts still for the same apparent brightness. No other lighting comes even close to low pressure sodium (SOX) for efficiency. High pressure sodium (SON) is the nearest, but IIRC only has 2/3rds of the efficiency.
  • by oman_ (147713) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:30PM (#20523765) Homepage
    The most impressive sky I have ever seen was right after a typhoon on the island of Guam.
    I snuck out of my house when I was 16 and the island was still under a typhoon warning and nobody was outside.

    The entire island and the neighboring island of Truk were both without power entirely and there was not a single cloud in the sky.
    It truly was a spectacular sight and I do feel sad when I look up into the night here in the states.

    You can't imagine what it's like until you've seen it for yourself. Really

    • I know what you mean. The best night sky I ever saw was late at night on Tonkin Gulf while my ship was on patrol back in '72. The LA sky was probably just as good just after the Northrige Quake, but I had other things to think about at the moment and didn't really get a good look.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by arminw (717974)
      .....You can't imagine what it's like until you've seen it for yourself......

      You can still see that, or at least something close, in a planetarium. The next best thing, if you have a computer, you can download some software for free at:

      www.stellarium.org

      Besides viewing the computer screen, this software will also allow you you to set up a planetarium if you have a projector and can rig up a dome shaped screen. It will also control certain telescope mounts.

      It's not likely that the skies over any large city w
  • by also-rr (980579) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:36PM (#20523807) Homepage
    While lights at night may make the sky harder to see the effect will be very pretty [nasa.gov] for any visiting aliens.

    In fact this story has inspired me to go and set up xplanet [sourceforge.net] again to provide an ever-changing desktop background.
  • A 20 year old fight. (Score:4, Informative)

    by scattol (577179) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:37PM (#20523817)
    Tucson AZ has been fighting light pollution for more than 20 years. This isn't exactly a new fight. That said, it's gaining momentum. In part thanks to the IDA [darksky.org]. That having been said, this won't be won until the general population sees light pollution as a bad thing. We aren't there yet but with more general public articles there are chances that light pollution becomes as well known as air and water pollution.

    For what it's worth, some estimate that there are about 700,000 amateur astronomers in the US. It's not a huge number. But it's much bigger than the just a few geeks that some would make you think.

    It's a good fight and it starts at home, you can do your part by turning off the exterior lights of your house when you don't need them. With 2009 the international year of astronomy [astronomy2009.org], if you help now, maybe we all will get a better view of the night sky to celebrate the 400 years of telescope observing of the night sky.
  • by Average_Joe_Sixpack (534373) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:38PM (#20523821)
    The suburban sprawl boom of the last 25 years absolutely destroyed the quality of the night sky, and I don't see it getting any better unless there is a severe energy crisis that hits the avg American's wallet. Even one of the few remaining dark sky sites in the North East is now being threatened by a proposed wind farm.

    • by shmlco (594907)
      "Even one of the few remaining dark sky sites in the North East is now being threatened [sic] by a proposed wind farm."

      You HAVE to be kidding. So now we can't have cheap, clean, renewable energy sources... since if we do so some people won't be able to see a few stars?

      This BANANA at it's finest.
      • You HAVE to be kidding. So now we can't have cheap, clean, renewable energy sources... since if we do so some people won't be able to see a few stars?

        Go ahead and build them in suburbia. The few remaining pristine forests in this country should be spared from the juggernaut of sprawl.
  • What is the Milky Way?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      For those who don't know what he's referring to: Belgium illuminates its highways at night.
  • Ascension Island (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dolphinzilla (199489) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @06:55PM (#20523931) Journal
    The darkest - best sky I have ever seen - in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean its pretty dark !
    I remember how easy it was to see all the space junk flying overhead - and some nebula's and galaxy's
    could be discerned with the un-aided eye.. Too cool. Light pollution sucks...
  • by edxwelch (600979) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:02PM (#20523973)
    All we need to do is install more power stations with Windows and the viruses will do the rest:
    http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/08/14/power.outage/ [cnn.com]

    No power, no light pollution
  • In much of North America, the moisture in the sky causes a white high altitude fog as soon as the sun goes down, so light or no light, you can't see much of anything anyway, even when you are in the middle of nowhere, of which there actually is quite a lot of around here - it's a big place. So don't blame the white night sky on all the street lights - take a drive out of the city and look up, chances are that you'll still see nothing.
    • by frdmfghtr (603968)

      In much of North America, the moisture in the sky causes a white high altitude fog as soon as the sun goes down, so light or no light, you can't see much of anything anyway, even when you are in the middle of nowhere, of which there actually is quite a lot of around here - it's a big place. So don't blame the white night sky on all the street lights - take a drive out of the city and look up, chances are that you'll still see nothing.

      When you go out into the countryside, you have to wait for your eyes to ad

  • "Pollution"? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by intx13 (808988) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:10PM (#20524043) Homepage
    While I do understand the desire to see the night sky better, I'm not sure that this is "pollution" per se. Pollution (at least as defined by Merriam-Webster) implies contamination - light does not contaminate. Where we to just turn off all the lights and wait a few femtoseconds the night sky would be as dark as pitch. This isn't about pollution (which is something that does actually need fighting), but rather someone saying "Gee, I wish I could see the night sky better." Fair enough, and so do I, but I'm not willing to give up street lights to get it.

    Of course, when it comes to someone opening up their cell phone during a movie... roll out the tanks, let the war begin! :)
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by UserGoogol (623581)
      There's nothing in the word contamination which implies the contamination is permanent. It just means (American Heritage Dictionary, which is a different dictionary, but whatever) "To make impure or unclean by contact or mixture" if excess light is shining in some area, then there is stuff mixed in with it (photons of whatever energy visible light has) that would not otherwise be there, thus it is contaminated. Just because you can turn the lights off and the photons will automatically dissipate seems irrel
  • by v1 (525388) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:17PM (#20524075) Homepage Journal
    PUT THAT LIGHT OUT! (ww2)

    This was done of course to make cities difficult to spot from the air, aiding enemy bombers navigate to (or identify) their target. When you think about how hard it is to get 30,000 people to cooperate on anything, it's a wonder that was even worth the effort of trying.

  • While the goal of "saving the darkness" seems to be the focus, the real impetus is the energy savings. There's no point in installing light fixtures that direct half of their light up into the sky. You can save considerable amounts of money by putting a reflective cap on top of the light and then using a smaller light bulb.

    Some of the first light pollution legislation in Tuscon, AZ, mandated that the light could not be seen from an angle of 30 degrees above the horizontal.
  • by Snarfangel (203258) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @07:46PM (#20524285) Homepage
    Have you *seen* the lack of light pollution there?
  • by mwilliamson (672411) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @08:08PM (#20524423) Homepage Journal

    A few years back on TX State Highway 77 heading north I could see an odd skyglow that I noticed just a few miles north of Raymondville TX. I was interested quickly because there is nothing in the ranch land between Raymondville and Corpus Christi that could be making that much light. Is I continued north, I noted the slowness of the angular change of the light and realized it had to be Corpus. A couple of hours of driving confirmed that the skyglow in this city of absurd light was really visible 120 miles south of here.

    This city is totally filled with flood-lit carlots, an incredible amount of freeway lighting (way more per mile than any other Texas city that I've seen), billboard's littering the cityscape all lit from below, and a total disregard for our very unique coastal wildlife. Light pollution is just another example of our culture's unnatural incompatibility with our natural environment.

  • by dasimms (644188) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @10:48PM (#20525437)
    I know this is Slashdot and nothing should surprise me but the hostility towards dark sky preservation is kind of scary. I think it is important to understand that being able to see the Milky Way from Times Square is not the goal. Being able to see the Milky Way after a 2-3 hour drive from Times Square should be possible. Putting a little more thought and effort toward how we light our highly populated areas to reduce energy use and cost, improve visibility, and allow us to preserve our night sky seems obviously beneficial to me.

    While I'm sure people in Central Park would enjoy the night sky, I empathize with their concern for safety and well lit areas certainly feel more secure. I am suggesting that they would need to travel for a bit in order to enjoy the night sky. Another words, the people who are trying to preserve the night sky aren't suggesting the cities turn out their lights, just shine their lights toward the ground instead of toward the sky. You can drive an hour or so from a small city to see a somewhat dark sky and still see a mighty glow from the cities direction. While I understand the glow can never be eliminated, it certainly can and should be reduced.

    One aside - I am familiar with the wind farm being erected in one of the few remaining dark sky sites in the eastern United States. A few changes (like moving them a short distance or using red "safe" lights) would have made them astronomy friendly. While this may not seem important to many, the area was obviously a haven for astronomers from all over the area especially since the park has been working hard to make it even more friendly - like installing astronomical domes with electricity and renting them for a nominal fee. so it goes. end aside.

    One final thought - even if there were no benefits like cost savings, energy savings, and better lighting, the idea of dark sky preservation is akin to other environmental concerns. Just because we don't all enjoy sloshing through wetlands or cutting our way through a rain forest doesn't mean those areas shouldn't be conserved. I say the same goes for the night sky. We may not all be awed by the glow of a full moon, a fiery meteor blazing through the sky, or just watching the twinkling of a million stars but we shouldn't take away the opportunity for all of us and future generations from seeing what many of us feel is the most amazing and spectacular thing imaginable: our universe.

  • by keeboo (724305) on Saturday September 08, 2007 @11:07PM (#20525513)
    I do live in Curitiba [wikipedia.org] and I do remember that ~15 years ago you could quite a lot of stars during the night, enough to try to identify the constelations and stuff. Nowadays all you can see during the night is a reddish haze in the sky (due to the city's mercury lamps), the Moon, Venus and perhaps one and another star. When the weather is _very_ dry you may see perhaps more 5-6 stars.

    Once, 10+ years ago, I was returning from Paraguay by bus and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere in a freak-long line (customs control). The line was completely stuck, I was feeling bored and went from the bus to take some fresh air. I remember that when I looked at the night sky I could see clearly the Via-Lactea, the sky was filled with stars and the whole thing seemed sort of colorful.. You could even see some meteorites/satellites/whatever passing by.
    Man, that was an unique experience for a city guy. I guess it was only then I realised the point of appreciating the night sky people so often wrote about.
  • by yeremein (678037) on Sunday September 09, 2007 @01:12AM (#20526157)
    On an all-night *yawn* trip from Salt Lake City to San Diego, I took this photo [flickr.com] at the rest area in the desert between Baker and Barstow, California, looking in the direction of Las Vegas. Once I found refuge from the glare bombs surrounding the parking lot, I looked up and saw more stars than I've ever seen before... but Vegas and L.A. were huge glowing domes on the horizon. I don't think there's anywhere in the continental U.S. that is totally free from light pollution.

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