A Stolen Sky

Light pollution is thieving us of a black nighttime dome. The consequences could be very dark, indeed.

Light pollution is thieving us of a black nighttime dome. The consequences could be very dark, indeed.

By Susan Anspach

Bob Parks can remember standing in his Laurel, Md., backyard as a boy, losing himself in the alabaster depths of the Milky Way. In the 1970s, a naked eye and a tilt of the head still afforded a wealth of starry spoils—even in a city whose county boundaries brush the edge of the nation’s capital.

Parks, today a 53-year-old Fairfax Station resident, is director of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a non-profit member organization with offices in Arizona and Washington, D.C. He assists in overseeing night-sky brightness meters, 25 of which were installed throughout the United States and Chile this year with funding from the National Science Foundation. The meters are used to identify areas of what Parks calls “pristine night sky,” slices of which are growing fewer and farther between throughout the country.

No Metro-D.C. locations were selected for installation. That’s because there are no IDA-certified dark-sky parks in Northern Virginia or its neighboring areas. The organization is debating a proposal to amend the dark-sky places program to include places that aren’t all that dark—but are at least darker than their surrounding regions, like the district. There, according to Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (NOVAC) president Ed Witkowski, 99 percent of naked-eye objects are obscured. In the nucleus of downtown D.C., Witkowski says, spotting five stars without the assistance of a telescope is a good night.

The outcome, according to Parks, is a population unable to recognize the deficit of a nighttime sky.

“It’s hard to raise awareness of an issue if you’ve never experienced a dark area. Eighty to 90 percent of the population lives in the Metro area. … Their kids have never seen the Milky Way,” says Parks.

Even in recent history, it wasn’t always this way. A handful of years ago, members of NOVAC used to be able to observe deep-sky objects such as faint star clusters and nebulae at Crockett Park in Fauquier County and Camp Highroad near Middleburg, both of which today only afford between 10 and 30 percent naked-eye visibility. Anymore, they find themselves having to travel with greater and greater frequency to Skyline Drive. West Virginia’s Spruce Knob, a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Fairfax, is the closest observation site that affords any real lucidity.

Both Parks and Witkowski point to the region’s housing boom five years back as a tipping point. That’s when light from Loudoun began crowding the skies to the east of Camp Highroad, and glow emanating from Prince William County blotted out the northern sky in Fauquier.

“The amount of light pollution—I don’t want to say it skyrocketed—but it really increased badly, especially out of like, Crockett,” Witkowski says. “About a third of the northern sky is just sky glow. A big light dome.”

The problem traces back further than that. Twenty years ago is when Parks began petitioning for the adoption of outdoor ordinances to curtail light pollution, in response to American cities’ “tremendous growth” between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, what he refers to as “the biggest degradation of night sky we’ve seen in decades.”

To hear Parks tell it, the ramifications are nothing short of dire. He cites “all kinds of potential damage to species, from one-celled organisms and plants, all the way up to humans.”

Beyond that, he is concerned that something fundamental to life on Earth is fading into obscurity.

“You don’t notice what you’ve lost until it’s really obvious,” Parks says.

With such risk factors on the line, why not simply hit the dimmer?

It’s more complicated than that, says Fairfax County government principal planner Jack Reale. At press time, the county was preparing to consider changes to lighting ordinances for sports facilities, ATMs and single-family detached residential homes and townhouses.

In some cases, such as some Fairfax homeowners skirting the county’s max. output regulation of 2,000 lumens (about 100 watts) by clustering multiple light sources, tighter restrictions were slated for consideration. But Reale cautions against applying such characterizations as “tightening” or “loosening” to lighting ordinances.

“I don’t know that we’re doing anything to tighten or loosen,” Reale says. “I would say we’ve always looked at this as tweaking just to observe what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.”

The way he describes his job makes it sound more analogous to walking a tightrope—one that straddles the concerns of environmentalists, whom Reale says were the impetus behind the regulations’ reconsideration, and security-minded citizens and businesses. In the case of the ATMs, an industry request was made of the board that it consider a review of arguably too restrictive lighting for adequate security.

“So there it’s a case of perhaps even … somewhat loosening the regulations, but only in the sense that we would be trying to accommodate those parts of the bank facilities that require security lighting,” Reale says.

With few exemptions, Prince William County’s ordinances, last updated in 2004, prohibit outdoor lighting fixtures that produce glare on adjacent properties and roadways, and specify that cut-off light fixtures—units for outdoor lighting that permit no direct uplight and thus help eliminate glare—are to be used in parking lots and on buildings. County code details five- and 10-foot-candle limitations for parking lots and multifamily units, 30-foot-candle restrictions for high-security areas and 50-foot-candle limits for most sports facilities. Floodlighting is only to be conducted with full cut-off or directionally shielded fixtures. (A foot-candle is a measurement of illumination; one is roughly equal to 10 lumens. In modern homes and workplaces, levels commonly range between 10 and 100 foot-candles.)

Loudoun’s county code updates are more recent. As of 2007, code states that sources of glare should not illuminate in excess of .25 foot-candles above background light levels, that lights should be shielded so as not to affect bordering properties, and that sports fields shall use cut-off and fully shielded fixtures that do not illuminate in excess of 10 foot-candles.

Yet Witkowski singles the latter county out as one where NOVAC has found it difficult to make its voice heard.

“That’s where we had problems [in 2002] when they had a hearing about light pollution, and there were actually people showing up in Star Wars outfits, saying that we were the forces of darkness and we wanted everyone’s lights to be turned off and people weren’t going to be safe.”

Witkowski adds, “Any time we hear of any sort of board of supervisors, even state legislature [meeting] … we try to make an appearance whenever we can.”

But according to Keith Fairfax, zoning enforcement program manager for Loudoun, the fight against light pollution in his county seems to have died down in recent years.

“It was pretty frequent when I first started that we would get complaints, especially in the rural part of the county about folks putting up, you know, spotlights and all kinds of things, because it was ruining their view,” says Fairfax, who has held his county position 11 years. “But I haven’t had one in the west end of the county for several years now.”

Fairfax explains that Loudoun’s lighting ordinances are stricter in the county’s more rural regions—“everything has to be shielded”—but relatively lax in areas of high population density.

“Several years ago we had a group … that really wanted to come in for the county and rewrite the ordinance. But it kind of died, and gosh, that was probably in 2005 or 2006. So no one’s looked at them since really back then.”

As one might expect, nocturnal creatures are one of Park’s talking points. He says light pollution changes bats’ ability to feed and how they come out at night, delaying their exit an hour or more.

Bat experts are reluctant to go on record in support of such claims, but will not dispel them, either.

Bob Locke, director of publications for Austin, Texas-based Bat Conservation International (BCI), cites a lack of determinative North American studies.

“The short answer, I’m afraid, is that no one here is at all comfortable with discussing light pollution and bats because we simply don’t know enough about it,” he says.

While conclusive statistics may be absent, Leslie Sturges, director of conservation non-profit organization Bat World NOVA in Annandale, says there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence pointing to bats disappearing from urban landscapes at a rapid rate.

“You know, when they’re sweeping up all those dead birds from around lit skyscrapers in the morning, they’re also getting bats,” she says. “As far as pointing directly at light pollution and bats, intuitively it’s obvious that it’s impacting them, but there’s just not the hard numbers there.”

Nor are people immune to threats posed by the trend, says the IDA. The organization estimates that more than $3 billion a year is wasted on outdoor light energy that goes above the horizon, where it is of no safety use, or that is being emitted as fixturous glare. Parks explains that glare, such as is emitted from car lots and 24-hour gas stations, can momentarily blind people as their eyes attempt to instantaneously adjust from a much darker environment to a much brighter one.

“Really bright outdoor lighting with a lot of glare is [a] safety issue for [the] elderly. That’s not fair that we can’t control quality of outdoor lighting so citizens can feel safe,” says Parks. “They curtail their mobility because they can’t drive safely.”

Circadian disruption is another cause for concern for people, Parks says. When a person sleeps, his pineal gland in the brain secretes melatonin, colloquially known as “the hormone of darkness.” Melatonin assists in cell repair, and its secretion can be interrupted by any bright light.

“[With] a momentarily blast of light from the bathroom [it] can take an hour for you to go back to the full resting stage,” Parks says. “[There will be a] delay of melatonin if you stare at a computer screen before bed. There’s a bigger effect if it’s from environment.”

Advocates of the dark-skies initiative confess a sentimental attachment to their work, and its potential benefactors.

“It’s like, shooting stars,” says Sturges. “As a kid, shooting stars were just a normal part of a summer night experience. And now they’re this rare and precious occurrence that you can see one.”

They also admit to feeling outnumbered.

“It’s sort of a grassroots effort,” says Witkowski. “It’s not like we have Tom Cruise on our side.”

Sturges can relate to the frustrations of championing a lesser-known environmental cause.

“When you come right down to it, research gets done when it gets funded,” she says. “You can have all the interested people in the world with their begging cups out, and it’s not cancer. It’s not pandas.”

Parks, for one, shows no signs of slowing. He says he is in talks with LED manufacturers in an effort to educate them on high color temperature and blue-white light’s potentially harmful impact on circadian mechanisms. For their part, NOVAC tries to educate the public at its twice-yearly outreach observation events, despite the encroaching glow.

“The more and more we obliterate the night sky, the less opportunity future generations have to learn what’s up there above them,” says Witkowski. “That’s sort of the old saying, the final frontier. But it is.”

First time learning about light pollution? Here are some quick facts that you should know.

– Sources of glare should not illuminate in excess of .25 foot-candles above background light levels.

– Night-sky brightness meters are used to identify areas of “pristine night sky.”

– Cut-off light fixtures are to be used in parking lots and on buildings.

– County code details five- and 10-foot-candle limitations for parking lots and multifamily units and 50-foot-candle limits for most sports facilities.

– International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is a non-profit member organization that oversees night-sky brightness meters.

– Illumination is measured in foot-candles; one is roughly equal to 10 lumens.

– An estimated $3 billion+ a year is wasted on outdoor light energy that goes above the horizon.

– Most outdoor lighting fixtures that produce glare on adjacent properties and roadways are prohibited.

(October 2010)

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