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Space Science

Why We Need to Keep Our Night Skies Dark (Video) 130

Posted by timothy
from the be-kind-to-astronomers-and-cut-electric-bills-at-the-same-time dept.
Kelly Beatty has a unique perspective on the world of astronomy: Beatty's been on the staff of Sky & Telescope magazine for nearly 40 years as a writer and editor, including a stint heading "Night Sky" magazine. He's also written what's been called "the definitive guide for the armchair astronomer," and teaches astronomy to people of all ages. (He even has an asteroid named after him.) Besides being fascinated with the objects we can see in Earth's skies, Beatty takes the skies themselves seriously: his Twitter handle is NightSkyGuy for a reason. We talked a few weeks ago, in dark-skied rural Maine, about his involvement with the International Dark-Sky Association, and why you should care about ubiquitous light pollution, even if you don't have a deep interest in star-gazing. (And it's not just to be courteous to your neighbors.)

Kelly: My name is Kelly Beatty. I am the Senior Contributing Editor for Sky & Telescope magazine, also astronomy teacher at the Dexter-Southfield School in Brookline, Massachusetts. I went to Cal Tech in California to get a degree in astronomy and ended up being on the staff of Sky & Telescope in 1974, where I’ve been writing about astronomy for the lay audience ever since. And it’s a job I just love.

Tim: 40 years is a pretty long time with any job.

Kelly: It is. It’s like the only job I’ve ever had. And you know Sky & Telescope is really dedicated to getting it right and getting it out there and so it was a perfect fit for me.

Tim: Well, I noted one thing that really animates you is light, and I mean for an astronomer light is everything. So here on earth what sort of problems do people have with light?

Kelly: Well, I want to take you back to my youth growing up in Central California, there really was no light pollution to speak of and any kid like me, interested in astronomy or not, would walk out into their backyard and bang, the sky would just be there to just amaze them and thrill them and get them to think big thoughts about what’s our place in the universe and how did we all get here.

And the problem is we’ve lost a lot of that. Over the year’s development and concern for security, more street lights, more fast food restaurants have created this pall in the night sky that we call light pollution that has made it really difficult to see the night sky in its natural state.

And so here we’re in the backwards of Maine with a dozen families who have come from Washington DC and New York City and Boston and all across the U.S., and in part they are here to steep themselves in the pristine darkness that used to exist everywhere.

Tim: No, is this a worldwide problem or is it more DC and more in some countries than others?

Kelly: There is an astronaut named Don Pettit, who has got a fascination with the night sky and if you look at some of the space station videos, you can see a ray, the blanket of lights from cities around the world just sort of playing out at night. There is this one video that just amazes me.

On one hand it’s pretty; it’s like little diamonds against the black background of the earth. And on the other hand it shows us how much we’ve lost by having all those lights on at night. They create a problem for virtually 99% of the world’s population cannot see. They have some form light pollution and in the U.S., for example, two-thirds of us can’t see the Milky Way, some of the most dramatic vistas of the night time sky are just gone.

Tim: So, Kelly when it comes to light pollution, there are different kinds light in the worlds, there is industrial, there is household, what sort of lights – does it matter, what kind, does it make a difference in the world of the light pollution?

Kelly: Yeah, so Thomas Edison gave us you know the incandescent light which we’ve all grown very familiar with and interestingly it’s very inefficient as a source of light given the amount of electricity it uses. And around 1970s or so a new generation of what’s called high intensity discharge lighting sources came on the market, the one everyone is familiar with is that kind of peach colored light in the night, at night time fixtures, that’s from high pressure sodium.

And so that produces far more light for the same amount of electricity. Well, that’s good and bad. What it allowed businesses and everyone else to do is to create a lot more light to light up the night, make it more like day light with the same amount of electricity. And also we’ve kind of become a 24/7 society if you think about it. It used to be that your town rolled up the sidewalks at 7 o’clock at night and now you can find all night pharmacies and fast food places and so all of that has created a kind of glow in the night. What’s worse is that these fixtures were initially very indiscriminate in where they put the light.

If you think about this light bulb for a second, it emits light in all directions, up, sideways and down. And when you’re trying to light a sidewalk or your parking lot, down is really the only direction that’s important, but in the mean time you get all this light that goes up and goes up into the atmosphere and is wasted.

So, what the International Dark-Sky Association started doing is, “hey look, if you take a light bulb that’s only half as much wattage regardless of its type and you take all of the light and put it down on the ground, you’ll get the same amount of light for half the wattage because nothing is wasted.” And that’s been sort of the premise of the light pollution movement, anti-light pollution movement for almost 30 years now.

The interesting thing is that, right now we’re on the cusp of a generational change in how we light the night and it has to do with LED. So, I got little LED flash light here, in the camera it’s very bright and the reason is, that the LED itself has a lens built in, it cannot shine light in all directions, it has to be pointed some place and obviously the best place to do that right, is to shine it down, so that it’s maximizing its light on the ground. Well, that’s fabulous from a light pollution standpoint. And so the IDA is really involved in getting these LEDs rolled out in not only energy efficient ways, but in outdoor lighting friendly ways.

One of the reasons that we are a little bit on the one side happy, and the other side concerned is that, the most efficient LEDs and you’ve probably noticed this, they have a kind of bluish light to them. Blue light is actually quite harmful to the night time environment. There are all these critters including people who are active at night and our bodies want darkness to replenish something in our blood stream called melatonin. It’s a chemical created by the pineal gland in the brain and it can only be produced when it’s really dark. Blue light causes the eye and the brain to stop producing melatonin at night. And so when you get up to go the bathroom and you flip-on the light switch or raid the fridge, whatever it might be, you’re actually doing your body damage because the melatonin production crashes and you have to start all over again. So that might be why you wake up cranky.

But, medical research is showing more and more that the melatonin level in your blood stream might be critical for the body’s defense against certain types of cancers. There’s research showing that breast cancer and prostate cancer is more problem among people who work night shifts.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that a little light coming in your bedroom window from the street light is going to give you breast cancer. That’s not my point. But we don’t know light’s effect on the human body. And there is a lot of research in that direction. So, it would be prudent to just be a little bit cautious in that.

In any case, LEDs can be colored to be less blue and that’s where the IDA comes in. We’re working with industry and lighting manufacturers and the federal government to create a standard where warmer lighting, we think if it is warm light becomes a little bit more prevalent. And we know this from our own experiences at home. You know compact fluorescent, those little squeakily light bulbs, the ones that are most efficient look kind of harsh to us and industry has responded by creating soft lighting compact fluorescent and the same is going to be true with LEDs and we hope this applies to street lights as well.

Because it really does – this is an incredible technology, it’s going to change the light the night and from the standpoint of light pollution, it has the potential at least to be a really good thing.

Tim: I’m going to go back for a second to the blue light, is that why looking at say a laptop screen can be so disruptive to sleep?

Kelly: Looking at a laptop screen or reading your smartphone just before you go to bed, it’s like one of the worst things you can do. Remember that melatonin isn’t produced just when you’re asleep, but it is produced when it’s dark and so by exposing your eyes, there is a little sensor in your eye that is a trigger for melatonin production that says, yes, it’s dark enough, produce melatonin. Well, that switch is left in the off position when there is blue light around.

Robin Miller: We need to wrap more things in red cellophane.

Kelly: Exactly. And in fact, astronomers have known this for decades that you could use red light at night to see where you’re going and it doesn’t affect your night vision and that’s related to melatonin production issue.

Robin Miller: Dark rooms too.

Kelly: Dark rooms as well, right.

Robin Miller: Now what sort of approaches does the Dark Sky organization have to do? What organization helps to change the state of light pollution?

Kelly: So, the IDA has been working with industry for decades to try to get them in the mindset that fixing light pollution and fixing the glare from bad lights is actually energy-efficient, it’s not just about saving the night sky, it’s actually an energy-efficient thing to do. And we’ve actually got the buy-in of lighting engineers and lighting manufacturers, they get it, they get light pollution now and you will see more Dark-Sky friendly fixtures on the marketplace, especially with regard to these – every manufacturer now has some level of Dark-Sky compliant fixture and in fact, the IDA has a kind of seal-of-approval that we bestow on those fixtures that are really good for the night-time environment.

And I would not be surprised to see a gradual improvement in light pollution, that is a lessening of light pollution over time. It’s taken us decades to get it this bad, right? And it’s going to take decades to get it fixed, but what we’re finding is that a lot of communities that are small and have a kind of quality of life that they want to be preserving, they’re on the forefront of adopting ultra lighting regulations, contacting the utilities and so forth.

The cities, that’s a little bit harder nut to crack, but the IDA has created a model ordinance for cities of all sizes that we’re starting to get adopted and I think over time, I think you’re going to see the light pollution issue becoming more in the forefront.

People know about light pollution now; they didn’t 10 years ago. And further, there are fixtures now that are economical to buy that will solve the problem that didn’t exist 15, 20 years ago. So, I think we’re converging on the solution for light pollution. I’m really optimistic that it’s going to get better and not get worse.

Tim: People are very used now to seeing things like Energy Star logos.

Kelly: Right.

Tim: And certainly, UL seal of approval, so this is one more thing that can give someone guidance as to say this is a Dark-Sky approved sort of fixture.

Kelly: As one example, Lowe’s, the big household home improvement chain has recently agreed to start carrying a line of Dark-Sky friendly fixtures, and it’s good business because as I said, consumers are becoming aware of light pollution and they do look for these things and just the whole sustainability issue, this is wrapped up in it. We have a great partnership with other environmental awareness agencies. We’re doing work with wildlife, with the national park service, there are places that not only understand light pollution but they’re also really doing something about it.

Tim: Now, it’s an international association.

Kelly: Right.

Tim: So are some countries – do some countries serve as models that you’d like to see emulate in the U.S.?

Kelly: It’s ironic that in some ways Europe in particular is way ahead of the United States in fighting light pollution. One of the things about LEDs that’s really attractive is that unlike these high pressure sodium bulbs, they can be turned on and off at will, they can be dimmed, you can do anything with them from the standpoint of the output. And so there are places in Europe where you can go that have street lights that only come on when a car is coming down the road, or a pedestrian is coming down the road. And I think you’ll see that adopted here in the United States a lot, especially in sort of pedestrian walkways. The sad thing is that we’ve grown to think of the dark as dangerous, and that more light makes us safer from a crime point of view and there’s just no solid evidence for that.

What we do know is that, when you have glare from a poorly shielded fixture, your ability to see what’s in the shadows is greatly reduced, and so the thing is the idea is not saying don’t put light at night, we know we need light at night, we are a 24x7 society and we need that kind of way finding in the dark.

What we’re saying is, let’s light intelligently, let’s put light where we need it, when we need it and only as much as we need and I think if we do that, it will be great.

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Why We Need to Keep Our Night Skies Dark (Video)

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  • by Creosote (33182) on Tuesday August 27, 2013 @05:16PM (#44690679) Homepage

    A few days ago, the Washington Post ran a somewhat unconventional travel article on Tucson as a destination for skygazers, and mentioned the influence of the ISDA and the local astronomy community in creating the local ordinances limiting light pollution:

    www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/seeing-stars-in-tucsons-brilliant-night-sky/2013/08/22/5bc4d34e-05e2-11e3-9259-e2aafe5a5f84_story.html

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I can't tell you how many astronomers I work with that either live, lived, or want to live in Tucson. It's crazy.

    • by jeffy210 (214759)

      I remember the drive from Phoenix to Tucson at night was one of the most beautiful skies i've ever seen.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Ill second this. The Skies in Arizona are gorgeous. That being said, Phoenix is bad, but you can get out of the city quite quickly and observe the night sky with only a 30 minutes drive to the mountains. But Tucson is a great place, very little in the way light pollution once you get just a little ways away from The UofA and downtown Tucson.

        Credentials, I live in Phoenix, and lived in Tucson.

        • by dywolf (2673597)

          Oklahoma (and much of the plains) is pretty good too. Get about 40-60 miles out from OKC or Tulsa, and it starts getting real good. We were driving home from Dallas one night when I stopped and made her look. In 30 years she'd never seen it before without the city lights blocking most of it.

      • by _anomaly_ (127254)

        Living in Kentucky all my life (now in Louisville) and traveling to rural areas quite often for camping, hiking, and the like, I've been able to see some pretty clear skies and some impressive displays of galactic splendor.

        But nothing has compared to what I saw when camping in the Canyonlands of Utah in March. It was a nice clear and crisp night and the amount of light from the stars was almost overwhelming. I doubt I'll ever see anything as impressive again as it relates to the night sky. I only wish I

        • I fully agree. The most beautiful sky I saw was when I went up to the Grand Canyon and made a day of it. I was heading back to Phoenix and stopped between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon at about 10PM at night. The night was crystal clear and you could actually see more stars in the sky than I could as a young lad in rural Georgia. No cities being near by and being up 7000ft above sea level makes a huge difference in what you see in the night sky.
    • by simonbp (412489) on Tuesday August 27, 2013 @10:42PM (#44693133) Homepage

      Flagstaff, it should be noted, was the first official international dark sky city. Every time of year except for now (the two-month rainy season), you can almost guarantee a good night's viewing. The seeing is generally better than Tucson (we're at 7000 ft/2100 m, so less atmosphere), though it can really cool off at night (again, less atmosphere; low tonight is 52F/11C). The streetlights are fewer and low-pressure sodium, but the main light-pollution difference is that high power floodlights are banned.

      And yes, I am an astronomer here in Flagstaff.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I had a nice dark spot. It was far from any homes or schools. It was the perfect place to put a PRISON? Coleman Correctional is now there, with a zillion lights.

  • If (when) our mountains of garage reach a certain height we can just put our telescopes on top.
    • Fortunately, I know some Rabbids that are working on a pile of stuff. Perhaps when they are done with it, you can use it.

      I think they're saying something about home and moon, but it isn't safe around them.

  • As a photographer (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Gagek (1230792) on Tuesday August 27, 2013 @05:28PM (#44690803)

    We need to help be able to see the galaxy. I enjoyed as a kid. Now as a photographer for Impostor Magazine shooting fashion, this makes me miss the good old days!

  • Optimal viewing (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I find it's best to get above 10,000 ft, as rural as possible, and preferably the first clear night after a good rain. Oh, and when it's a new moon.

    Having just been out in the Elk Mountains of Colorado, southern end of the Maroon Bells, for 2 nights camping at 11k+, the night sky before the waning moon came up was phenomenal. Great view of the Milky Way!

    I have yet to acquire the appropriate camera gear, or telescope, for duration shots/filming, but I'll get there eventually!

  • Happiness (Score:5, Insightful)

    by EmperorOfCanada (1332175) on Tuesday August 27, 2013 @05:42PM (#44690917) Homepage
    I don't think that I have ever met a person who, when away from the city lights, didn't marvel at the grand display overhead. I also don't think that I have ever met a person who upon re-entering a built up area ever said, "I'm glad those twinkling stars have finely gone away."

    To be even more specific the darker it has been the more people have always marveled. When you can see our galaxy edge on in all its glory then the whole experience becomes just that much better.

    But for some reason we don't fight the big box stores when they blast a megawatt or two into the completely unused corners of their lots. Or the car dealerships that seem to want to keep their cars warm with the lighting; not to mention the dealers that then use the skyward spotlights to announce that their salesmen are like the gods of Olympus.

    Obviously some lighting is necessary but I would love to see some requirements for intelligent lighting. Lights that take into account that there is nobody needing their services and thus they can turn off. I suspect that at 2 in the morning all but the most populated areas would be quite dark. Plus the added bonus of reduced energy costs.
    • by JanneM (7445)

      There's absolutely a lot of places where changing the lighting in sensible ways would make a major difference. Just having street lights and others shining downwards only can have a large impact, and save energy and money in the process.

      But in large cities this particular battle is lost. Dense urban areas will be too bright no matter what you do, short of a war-like imposed blackout. Have street lights point downwards and there's still enough street area to lighten up any dust or particles in the air (and a

    • by gagol (583737)
      I live in a star revervation. We basically use lights that point only to the ground and reduce intensity around 1am... Nothing fancy but it is still safe to walk around at night and enjoy the stars too.
    • by TheSeatOfMyPants (2645007) on Tuesday August 27, 2013 @10:17PM (#44692979) Journal

      People in my city fought overdevelopment, big box stores (only recently lost that war), and car dealerships -- but as we discovered from the mid-90s onward, citizens are effectively powerless when the city council is in developers' pockets and everyone you elect to get rid of them turns around and does the same regardless of party affiliation. Sadly, all of that development meant a lot of McMansion types started moving here in the late 90s that don't have the interest in dark night skies or being close to nature that previous generations did, so now it's doubly difficult...

    • by kermidge (2221646)

      Intelligent use of lighting would be great; most cities I've lived in or near suck at it and absolutely don't care.

      Another thing I noticed decades back, moving from outside a small town to a Modern American Megapolis: city folks don't see the stars at night; they have no sense of awe, or humility.

    • by daviskw (32827)

      I have met people who were not marveled by the display of the Milky Way in the night sky. I have met people who were scared by it. I would suggest that I know more people in New York City that are terrified of it then not. There is a reason they are willing to live in Manhattan and pay those prices living on top of each other. They like the comforting crush of other humans and it is very okay for them to think that for every one of them four or five or fifteen people toil in the fields, or seas, or what

  • by ScottCooperDotNet (929575) on Tuesday August 27, 2013 @05:53PM (#44691031)

    How much longer before genetic engineering gives us humans the night vision many of our fellow mammals have?

    • by gagol (583737)
      How could we evolve such a thing if we keep ourselves innundated by light as much as we want?
      • Genetic engineering implies we bypass the whole evolution thing and go straight to editing the source code to our liking.
    • by PPH (736903)
      Personally, I welcome our overlord Riddick.
    • by daviskw (32827)

      Never. Why do you think Flashlights were invented? There is no genetic imperative not to be eaten by a Grue in the dark if you carry a flashlight.

  • Does it annoy anyone else that I you can't view slashdot videos behind a firewall and you can NOT view them on a Android device. Unless Slashdot can use a friendly format for firewalls and Android devices can you please just use YouTube or at least cross-post it. It's really annoying.

    Thanks!

    • by arth1 (260657)

      Does it annoy anyone else that I you can't view slashdot videos behind a firewall

      That must be a "problem" with the firewall, like it being configured to block them, i.e. it's doing its job.

      There's no problems whatsoever watching them through the reasonably strict business class firewall here, so it's not firewall-unfriendly. If the firewall is slashdot-unfriendly, I suggest you dump the running configuration and eyeball it to see what you need to change.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    At ~8:05 into the video they discuss the harm of bluelight from LCD screens and the importance of melatonin.

    I've been using f.lux [justgetflux.com] for years. It's makes working at night much more comfortable.

    • I second this.
      Awesome little fucker. Reduces eye-fuckness from LCDs quite a lot.
    • By working I assume you mean writing code as opposed to editing photographs or video or do anything else related to the graphic arts, because having a program silently dicking with your monitor's color temperature is just the thing if you want to ruin hours of work.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Actually, I do work with audio/video on occasion. I rarely do color intense work at night. I save that for early in the day when my eyes are fresh. I'll work on tweaking avisynth scripts (to test the next day) or scene cutting and audio work at night but that's it.

        Flux doesn't silently dick with the colors, it's blatantly obvious. There's no doubt at all that it's shifted to warm colors. In fact, I hated it at first (defaults were too much) but week after week I found myself wanting warmer colors.

        (Same

      • That's why one avoids doing such work too late into the night. Anyway, you shouldn't do artistic jobs right before going to bed, it's likely that your skills won't be as good as 1-2 hours ago, and imagination and willpower get a severe drop when bed is calling.
        I actually use redshift (a close equivalent to f.lux), programmed to always interrupt my artistic work 1.5 hours before bed. I know I'll go to bed late if I ignore that warning. I also picked a syntax highlighting for code that becomes unreadable when

  • Holiday (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hort_wort (1401963) on Tuesday August 27, 2013 @06:54PM (#44691573)

    I could see having a country-wide holiday every year where the lights around the city would be shut off early in the evening. We have plenty of useless holidays already, why not one that actually gives city kids a chance to see the stars?

    • by Trogre (513942)

      Earth Hour!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by gawbl (941021)
      I agree, but this is very unlikely. The local streetlights (San Jose CA) are wired directly into the local power grid, without benefit of meters. The only switches are the light detectors on each streetlamp. There is no "off switch", anywhere.The city has a deal with the local power company (Pacific Gas & Electric); they pay a flat fee per month for all the streetlamps in the city.
    • Hell yeah.

  • If we must have clear skies for stargazing, but want well-lit cities, why not have all lighting off for just a few days each year. Everyone can then gaze in awe at the sky, and have practicality the rest of the time.

    It could become a cultural thing where everyone participates. Even a little light pollution wrecks the experience of a REALLY clear deep black sky, so I say it's all or nothing.
    • by PPH (736903)

      but want well-lit cities,

      Do not want.

      Criminals don't give a damn about the 'cover of darkness'. That is just the sales pitch power companies made up to sell street lighting.

  • The Dark Sky Meter [darkskymeter.com] lets you point your (newer) iPhone overhead to determine the sky magnitude. Supposed to work reasonably well (I've not used it). Their website has a map of various readings from all over.
  • I propose we build an observatory in North Korea. [businessinsider.com]

  • We can keep the skies dark, but maybe a better idea is just to work towards space tourism and an off self sustainable off-world colony. Then you could really see the stars, and help fight Extinction.

  • Here's the US light pollution map: http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/ [jshine.net] and here's what the colours mean: http://cleardarksky.com/lp/VndbtPObNYlp.html?Mn=cameras [cleardarksky.com] If you haven't been to a truly dark sky (blue or darker on that map) then you really owe it to yourself to go. Just take yourself and some binoculars and look up. Mind-blowing. Unfortunately, the skies are just getting brighter the whole time. Whilst LEDs are more directional, they're also brighter and they deliver whiter light that does mo
  • It's been a couple of years now, but we did have a major, regional wide power outage occur here in Southern California. With the blackout starting in the late afternoon going up until who knew when, I was looking forward to a nice dark Milky Way filled night sky,.... that was until I remembered it was a full moon. Damn, of all the luck. However, the evening wasn't a total wash. Even though it was weeknight, because of the hot weather, most folks came out of their homes, many had impromptu block parties, co

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