‘Don’t be afraid of the dark:’ Stars will light the way
TRUCKEE, Calif. – Thousands of years ago, humans marveled at the Milky Way Galaxy’s grandeur. Today, due to light pollution, a third of humanity can no longer see it.
Developed countries fare even worse according to OneGreenPlanet.org, with up to 80% unable to witness this celestial wonder. But this issue extends beyond stargazing; it impacts plants, animals, and humans, too.
Michael Marlin, the author of Astrotourism: Star Gazers, Eclipse Chasers, and the Dark Sky Movement, serves as a Dark Sky ambassador for both the International Astronomical Union and the International Dark-Sky Association. He is a prominent public speaker addressing solutions to combat light pollution and promoting astrotourism. Marlin even coordinated with the City of South Lake Tahoe, where his discourse on the subject prompted them to initiate changes in their lighting practices.
Astrotourism involves traveling to locations for stargazing and celestial events like eclipses and meteor storms, in contrast to space tourism which offers views looking downward. “The 2017 total solar eclipse had some 200 million people tune into it, 18 times the viewership of the last episode of Game of Thrones. And the next eclipse in 2024 is going to have even more people,” Marlin said. Due to light pollution, 80% of North Americans can no longer see the Milky Way, prompting a rise in dark sky tourism. This has made remote and rural areas increasingly popular destinations. “Most people live and die under a dome of light and never have any idea of what is out there in the cosmos and what we are really connected to,” Marlin said.
Light pollution, one of the fastest-growing human-made pollutants, is outpacing population growth worldwide. Artificial light disrupts natural body rhythms in both humans and animals, affecting sleep patterns and the production of the hormone melatonin. Reduced melatonin levels have been linked to various health problems, including cancer.
The American Medical Association supports efforts to control light pollution due to these health concerns. Blue light, found in devices like cell phones and LED bulbs, can particularly impact melatonin levels. People with lower incomes are disproportionately affected by light pollution, often residing in urban areas or near busy highways with high levels of traffic.
According to Education.nationalgeographic.org, the World Atlas of Night Sky Brightness, published in 2016, vividly illustrates the global extent of light pollution. Vast regions in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are brightly lit, while remote areas like Siberia, the Sahara, and the Amazon remain in darkness. Notably, countries like Singapore, Qatar, and Kuwait are among the most affected.
The artificial modification of outdoor light levels disrupts ecosystems, affecting all kinds of animals. Sea turtles, for instance, become disoriented and vulnerable when beach fronts are lit, mistaking artificial light for the moon’s guidance. Similarly, fruit-eating bats crucial for rainforest regeneration avoid illuminated areas, threatening biodiversity.
Even plants are affected, with some species waking early due to nearby artificial light, disrupting natural cycles. Marine ecosystems are also affected by underwater artificial lighting. Protected natural habitats, including National Parks, are not immune to light pollution, with most parks showing some level of interference. This has a cascading effect on various organisms.
Truckee Town Manager, Jen Callaway, mentioned that the Dark Skies initiative has been in the works for about three years. The Dark Sky initiative in Truckee is dedicated to restoring the natural nighttime environment and protecting communities and wildlife from the negative impacts of light pollution. Local communities have already implemented Dark Skies compliant lighting. Gus Jones, the Chief Operating Officer at Martis Camp, has been a steadfast advocate of the Dark Skies initiative since 2007. He has consistently supported the cause, implementing measures such as a 10 pm moratorium on holiday lighting, which remains in effect from Mar. 1 to Nov. 14. Starting from Nov. 15, all lighting at Martis Camp is directed downward to minimize light pollution. Homes within the community adhere to this practice, ensuring that their lights are positioned in a manner that prevents unnecessary upward illumination.
Morgan Goodwin, who served as the mayor of Truckee in 2017 and was a council member from 2015 to 2019, describes himself as an enthusiast of “astronomy geekery.” “To me, the night sky is a thing that all of humanity has in common and always has had in common for the entirety of human consciousness. And the commonality gives us a profound look into how other people have related to the night sky,” Goodwin said.
In 2018, during his re-election campaign, Goodwin led a Dark Skies initiative, viewing it as a means to engage the community in a lively and captivating conversation about our relationship with the natural environment. His aspiration was for this campaign to become a defining aspect of Truckee’s identity, encouraging residents to take pride in preserving dark skies. And now, the Dark Skies movement is gaining traction.
“We want to make this part of the Truckee community character to preserve the night sky,” Callaway said.
Excessive lighting is wasteful, with 30% of outdoor lighting in the U.S. going to waste. This amounts to a staggering $3.3 billion loss. Additionally, lighting contributes to 21 million tons of annual CO2 emissions, necessitating the planting of 875 million trees yearly for offsetting.
To combat this, it’s recommended to switch off exterior lights by 10 p.m., including holiday lighting. Turning off interior lights when not in use and choosing downward-facing, dark-sky-friendly exterior lighting is advised. Motion sensor lights can enhance safety. Using these hacks, you could even save on electric bills. And as we transition into daylight savings time, the extended period of darkness makes these strategies even more crucial.
On Friday, Oct. 27 and Saturday, Oct. 28, Tahoe Adventure Company partnered with the Dark Skies campaign to provide a special full moon hike around Donner Pass to prove just how vibrant the night sky can be when far away from city lights.
Council member Courtney Henderson, who spearheaded the Dark Skies initiative, said it came to fruition with the adoption of the five-year process General Plan for 2040 earlier this summer. As of now, there have been no recent updates to the Dark Skies ordinance, but the Council plans to reevaluate it in a few years.
While Truckee is currently not certified as a dark sky community, achieving this designation is considered a prestigious honor. It brings several advantages, including enhanced stargazing opportunities, a focus on specific outdoor lighting materials, safety protocols, and plans to reduce light pollution. These regulations lead to savings in electricity costs, contributing to environmental conservation through reduced energy consumption, and enabling wildlife to function at their optimal natural levels.
“The rationale was to intentionally make it community-wide,” Henderson said. Together, with this community-wide effort, we can power down to help keep the lights on up there.
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