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Dark Skies Awareness
January 1, 2009 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Time to turn off the lights. "Cities needlessly shine billions of dollars directly into the sky each year and, as a result, a fifth of the world's population cannot see the Milky Way. Malcolm Smith explains why a dark sky has much to offer everyone." [Via]
posted by homunculus (47 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The World At Night
posted by homunculus at 1:55 PM on January 1, 2009


This is why this still won't go anywhere. The article starts with amateur astronomers. It needs to start with money because that's what people care about. I've been an advocate for good lighting for a long time because I'd like to see a dark sky. But my neighbors don't care about that. They think all the light makes them safe. The idiotic local politicians are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in my town replacing cobra head street lights with "ornamental" acorn lighting because people like it because they think it looks pretty.

This story needs to be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, big city newspapers, and popular magazines. And the lead needs to be the billions of dollars in wasted energy, not the milky way. Otherwise people won't care.
posted by AstroGuy at 2:15 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dark Sky Park
posted by homunculus at 2:15 PM on January 1, 2009


The Sky in Motion
posted by steveminutillo at 2:22 PM on January 1, 2009


And the lead needs to be the billions of dollars in wasted energy, not the milky way. Otherwise people won't care.

I'm not sure I agree with this. As a planner who has been to a lot of open houses in rural and suburban areas people do care about light pollution on an aesthetic level, and dark skies policies are often written into architectural controls in new subdivisions. The problem is that it exists in the context of precedent in the neighbourhood - people who've had it value it, and people who haven't don't tend to mention it. This is not to say that they wouldn't like it, but it's just not something which enters the conscience of the public enough to produce a groundswell of grass-roots support for dark-skies policies.

This, I think, is where planners, architects and politicians need to take the lead and be proactive with policy - and it often needs to be top-down in nature. Federal or state/provincial policy can often kick the asses of local politicians who are infamous for making spectacularly bad policy decisions on issues of this nature.
posted by jimmythefish at 2:37 PM on January 1, 2009


Well it is true that we're wasting a lot of energy with lighting.
posted by Restless Day at 3:18 PM on January 1, 2009


[...] a fifth of the world's population cannot see the Milky Way. Malcolm

That poorly-researched, busybody, pop-science hack of a ...

Smith explains [...]

... oh. Okay then, good. Let's have a look at this.
posted by penduluum at 3:19 PM on January 1, 2009


I've always lived in places with a lot of light pollution... I can't recall ever seeing the milky way outside of pictures. That's sad. It's so ugly here at night.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:22 PM on January 1, 2009


*turns off Xmas lighting, glares at neighbors' vulgar over the top display*
posted by Cranberry at 3:28 PM on January 1, 2009


And the lead needs to be the billions of dollars in wasted energy, not the milky way. Otherwise people won't care.

That's sadly so true, and this applies to so much else. It's this sort of thing that makes me wonder if we can save ourselves in time.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:30 PM on January 1, 2009


Here in Tucson, we've had dark-sky laws for a while here. Kitt Peak National Observatory is 50 miles west of town, and when it was established some decades back, laws were enacted regulating light because the astronomers needed the skies to be as dark as possible. As a result, we've had decent star-gazing even in the middle of the city. We've found ways to light public areas and roads so that they're safe at night, but without blasting the extra light into the sky. (In fact, one local mall was able to light the parking lot without glaring a ton of light into the neighborhood next door.) We have regulations on what kinds of light can be used and how it can be pointed.

Due to a number of factors, such as just the sheer size of the metro areas these days, and some of the other area governments not being on the same page, the sky isn't as dark as it has been in years past, but it's still pretty good. You can see meteor showers in mid-town. I live on the southern fringe of town, and the south sky is fantastic. I can still see the Milky Way at night. The stargazing is good for a metro area, and most Tucsonans need only to drive 15 minutes to have a spectacular view of the night sky.

There's always been some scattered resistance to the dark-sky laws here and there, but the astronomers have a fair bit of pull here and the laws haven't been weakened. It really does make a positive difference in quality of life, especially in an area known for its natural beauty.
posted by azpenguin at 3:34 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


one of the negative aspects of living in Hong Kong is the light pollution - all the lights are on, all the time. Those massive billboards and forests of neon make great tourist photos but it is hard for a lot of people to even get a good night's sleep, let alone worry about being able to see the stars.
posted by awfurby at 3:36 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Amalgamated Muggers Union certainly favors getting rid of street lights.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:54 PM on January 1, 2009


The Amalgamated Muggers Union certainly favors getting rid of street lights.

It's not about getting rid of street lights. It's about designing them so most of the light doesn't go flying off into the sky where it doesn't do anyone any good. Design them so they light the street, not everything around it.
posted by waitingtoderail at 4:01 PM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


I imagine this is why many people cannot grasp the concept of navigating by the stars. They have never seen the stars.
posted by notreally at 4:08 PM on January 1, 2009


It's not about getting rid of street lights. It's about designing them so most of the light doesn't go flying off into the sky where it doesn't do anyone any good. Design them so they light the street, not everything around it.

More than that, many streetlights actually make us less safe than having no lights would. The Milky Way is surprisingly bright, once your eyes adjust; I've been able to read by it in a dark location. And many streetlights throw light now just up, but straight out, into the eyes of people walking. There's a park not too far from me with horrible globe-shaped lights that cast so much glare that I have to shield my eyes to see where I'm walking. And the chance of seeing potential muggers in such glare? No way. Someone could be hiding ten feet away from me on the other side of one of those lights and I'd have no idea. I'd far rather they turned off all the lights in that park than continue to use those monstrosities. (Of course, I'd even more rather they got decently-hooded lights, but given a choice, I'd take no lights over what they've got.)
posted by jiawen at 4:38 PM on January 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


Living out in the sticks, I always gape in amazement at the people with the stupid-ass mecury-vapor beacons hanging outside. Do they not appreciate all of the aspects of the country, including a dark night? Are they really that timid.

Unnecessary night lighting is one of my peeves. Of course, Mrs. Maxwelton is one of those folks who simply turn on any and all available lights, so I'm not sure how we got together in the first place...
posted by maxwelton at 4:50 PM on January 1, 2009


Here's a photo taken at Death Valley, supposedly one of the darkest places in the US.
posted by dhruva at 4:59 PM on January 1, 2009 [3 favorites]


in my town, they're talking about making us pay an extra surcharge for having a street light on. (to raise money in hard times, right?) what kills me is that you can't have a neighborhood vote to turn the light OFF.
posted by RedEmma at 5:05 PM on January 1, 2009


*turns off Xmas lighting, glares at neighbors' vulgar over the top display*

Or their.....Vulgar Display of Power?

OMGXORZ!!11111
posted by Senor Cardgage at 5:13 PM on January 1, 2009


Light emiting diodes (LED's) to the rescue. LED's are far more efficient, can be directed to shine light only on the subject (eliminating most scatter) and are much cheaper to maintain than the standard orange-colored high-pressure sodium lights that currently ugly up our cities. LED's are more of an initial capital investment, but at some point LED's will break even that barrier. Here's a pilot project in NYC.
posted by telstar at 5:24 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


LEDs aren't more efficient.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:45 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, those fuckers in Paris with their "city lights are beautiful" thing ruined it for everybody.
posted by mightygodking at 5:53 PM on January 1, 2009


I first saw the Milky Way when I slept out in the North African desert. Actually, I didn't sleep, because I was so astounded by what the sky looked like, I just stayed up and thought about things while looking up at it. It's sad that a lot of kids don't get to see that.
posted by HopperFan at 6:05 PM on January 1, 2009


Here's a photo taken at Death Valley, supposedly one of the darkest places in the US.

Nice. Here's another good one from Canyonlands National Park in eastern Utah.
posted by homunculus at 6:39 PM on January 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


what kills me is that you can't have a neighborhood vote to turn the light OFF.

They have the right idea in Doerentrup, Germany: on demand street lights. Brilliant!
posted by homunculus at 6:45 PM on January 1, 2009


Homunculus, what an amazing photo. I loved this last bit "..., mountain lions were a concern while waiting alone in the dark to record the mosaic."
posted by HopperFan at 6:47 PM on January 1, 2009


Designing a mirror shape that puts a constant lux on a given tileable patch of ground (e.g. rectangular, triangular or hexagonal depending on how your lights are spaced) with minimal spillover should be within the grasp of any engineering undergraduate. Cheaply stamping mirror backings into a desired (low-precision) shape is technology older than anyone alive today. Using such mirrors over new streetlights should save billions of dollars in energy each year.

So why have I never seen such a mirror? There aren't many lamps using no mirror at all anymore, so someone must have eventually figured out that throwing half your light away was a bad idea; was it too much of a leap to realize that you could use the other half more efficiently at the same time? But no: fly over any city and you'll see a checkerboard of bright circular spots reducing night visibility separated by dark black interstices for muggers to hide in, whether you're looking at lights on public streets or private parking lots.

I don't suppose any MeFi denizens work at GE, Westinghouse, or some such? There's probably obscure prior art preventing me from patenting a proper lamp design and becoming a millionaire, but I would like to help fix the damn lights.
posted by roystgnr at 6:49 PM on January 1, 2009


This is the kind of thing I would like to see rich geeks like Paul Allen spend money on.
posted by Jairus at 7:26 PM on January 1, 2009


I've cared about this issue for years, but before recently thought it might be a lost cause. However, a city's migration to LED lighting provides an opportunity to reduce light pollution (and power use), even though LED's may not be the final answer for power or efficiency. For my part, I donated to www.darksky.org in the hopes they are able to take advantage of this window of opportunity. I looked around a bit and found other groups working on this issue, but these folks seem to be the most pro-active and education-focused.
posted by dylanjames at 7:44 PM on January 1, 2009


I'm amazed at how many people use flashlights even when it's pretty bright out, and more amazed at how few people look up. A contributing factor in my decision to buy my house is that it's much darker at night. I see many more stars, and often see the milky way, albeit not with such detail. I try to persuade my neighbors to turn off their bigass lights when they go to bed.

A full moon on a night when there's snow on the ground is an amazing experience.
posted by theora55 at 8:29 PM on January 1, 2009


I have never understood how the fear of the dark carries over so universally into adulthood. Your eyes adjust pretty well. It's only really ever hard to see on moonless nights.
posted by Eideteker at 10:22 PM on January 1, 2009


To be fair, LEDs do have one unique advantage over all conventional lamps: They’re inherently directional. The light comes from a little metal pit inside the LED, and it comes out of only the top of the pit.

This means that it’s quite easy to make an LED lamp that throws light in only the direction you want it to, with no efficiency-sucking reflectors or wasted light shooting up into the night sky to pollute it. So the effective luminous efficacy of an LED lamp, for street-lighting purposes, may be higher than its raw efficacy number might suggest.

posted by telstar at 1:27 AM on January 2, 2009


That's sadly so true, and this applies to so much else. It's this sort of thing that makes me wonder if we can save ourselves in time.

A little dramatic, don't you think? Looking at the stars is an idle diversion that some people enjoy, but it isn't that important to other people. The fact that not everyone shares your hobbies doesn't spell the doom of the species.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 1:28 AM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


My husband and I live in Vegas. A couple of weeks ago, we were invited to a party out in the suburbs. As we approached the location we commented to each other, "Wow, they live really far out -- you can actually see the STARS out here!"
posted by Jacqueline at 2:03 AM on January 2, 2009


Yeah, those fuckers in Paris with their "city lights are beautiful" thing ruined it for everybody.

Paris is called "the city of light" («la ville des lumières») because it was the city of the Enlightenment.
posted by Wolof at 2:36 AM on January 2, 2009


This is something they get right in my neck of the woods probably because of the high cost of energy in UK. The streets here are lit just enough to let you see where you are going at night but not much more. As a result from my backyard, in England's second largest city, I can see orders of magnitude more stars than I could ever see from out in the suburbs of Toronto on the far edge of Mississauga.

Night cycling is a bit uncomfortable though.
posted by srboisvert at 3:48 AM on January 2, 2009


Mr President: I think you missed my point, but maybe I should have been more specific. I'm more worried that people aren't going to stop damaging the environment, driving species to extinction, changing the climate, or even waging wars unless there's a clear, short-term monetary incentive to do so.
Looking at stars is nice, and I like a dark sky, but the idea that people only step out of their way when there's money in it for them is true way too often.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:54 AM on January 2, 2009


Here's a sad story from Arkansas The utility companies opposed installing more efficient lighting as it reduced off peak demand. So in the end they passed a bill allowing the energy companies to charge more for using more efficient lights making them cost prohibitive.
posted by humanfont at 4:14 AM on January 2, 2009


I would go so far as to say that this particular tendency, while it might not cause the expiration of the human race, is certainly a lovely summation of the basic attitudes which may kill us in some charming, Easter Island manner:

1) Our ancient fear of predators lurking in the dark, now at the very best, useless, serves as an excellent handle to sell us on the "necessity" of lighting, and we do not evaluate this fear rationally. If we do not have that hideous pinkish-orange light everywhere, graffiti-lusting ninjas will flit through our streets and steal our car stereos, if we have not managed to drive into a ditch because the roadways are no longer just slightly less well-lit than twilight. Safety! Crime! Humans are easily manipulated through fear.

2) We're comfortable with the sheer, useless waste of it — we've had options to make lighting more efficient for some time, but we somehow just cannot muster up the ability to do anything differently. Not to mention the complete amount of overkill in said lighting — While I do have good night vision, I think it's safe to say that if I can comfortably pick up a paperback and, in the dead of night, have a four mile walk while being able to read said paperback the entire way, that's too much. People simply are unable to create appropriate levels of response to a perceived threat.

3) Nothing less than the complete homogenization of our environment (aka, most of the land surface of the planet) is acceptable to us. We, as a species, just do not feel comfortable if this roadway doesn't look like that roadway.

4) We do not stop to think that much of this light and waste generated is for the advertisement of businesses which are not even open at 3 a.m. If it is brought up, someone says, "For the economy!" and the discussion goes away. We're just not thinking, and if someone does think, the answer is that we must satisfy the vague imperatives of what other people tell us will keep us rich.

5) That a feature of the natural world, the sky, which once served not merely as inspiration for poets but was also the source of navigation and prompting our understanding the motion of planets, and thus the need to develop higher math to explain it (they still make you do Kepler's equal area sweep for planets in calculus classes), and finally formulating a basic theory of gravity, would now be relegated to the status of an idle diversion for some and viewed as dispensable probably hints that we'll be happy to do that to just about every feature of the natural world.

Overall, these attitudes with regards to street lighting won't kill us, but where they came from may very well be the reason that the descendants of raccoons, millions of years hence, will go through excited periods of discovery of the trash left behind by our species, then a bit of hero-worship, and then finally come to the conclusion that we were a bunch of idiots.
posted by adipocere at 4:15 AM on January 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


This was also covered in the great New Yorker article The Dark Side.

That night-sky photo from Death Valley? At the time Galileo made his observations of the planets and stars with his homemade telescopes in Padua in 1610, night skies everywhere in the world were darker than the sky in Death Valley. The Milky Way was bright enough that on a moonless night you could see shadows cast by it.
posted by driveler at 7:08 AM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Solution: Mass installation of the clapper on city streets lights.
posted by Artw at 10:39 AM on January 2, 2009


sigh. i realized about a year ago that i hadn't seen the stars since i moved to philadelphia. it made me really, really sad. it still makes me sad because i have no way to go out into the middle of nowhere where i could see the stars.

i was never a big stargazer or anything, but as a kid i spend my summers and school breaks in the middle of nowhere, and could see the northern lights and the "milk" of the milky way, and millions of stars with no problem. they lit my way to the outhouse. didn't realize how cool it was until i didn't have it anymore (the night sky, not the outhouse).

but, i agree with posters up-thread who say that no one who doesn't already care is going to care about this now. meaning, the people who care about dark skies care for reasons besides the monetary cost of light pollution. and a bunch of astronomers telling people how great stars are isn't going to make people turn off their lights. but maybe if people find out how expensive all that wasted light is, they'll stop turning on the lights, and we'll all save money and get to see the stars.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:26 PM on January 2, 2009


Growing up in coastal Maine, I almost never got to see the northern lights because of the yellow incandescent glow in the north from fucking Bangor, fifty miles away.
I wish the whole city would collapse into the Penobscot.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:14 PM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


About a decade ago, I travelled to the Atacama desert in northern Chile (very remote, no large towns around) and saw, for the first time ever, that the Milky Way extends all the way from one horizon to the other horizon.
posted by telstar at 7:12 PM on January 2, 2009


Top 10 Night Sky Events for 2009
posted by homunculus at 1:09 PM on January 18, 2009


The Milky Way Over Mauna Kea
posted by homunculus at 4:18 PM on January 28, 2009


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