As students, we all learned about the Milky Way, Orion’s Belt, and the North Star. What would happen if these important points in our sky disappeared? In some places, they have. That’s because light pollution, the artificial glow that dims the stars, is affecting 63 percent of the world’s population. In many cities around the world, well-known constellations and meteor showers are not even visible anymore.
“The sky is fading,” a report says in Physics Today. And in one desert town in California residents are “taking back the night” as protectors of the sky, determined to keep their beautiful and starry night skies.
Borrego Springs, California has a population of 2,500 people and recently became the second community in the world to be named an “International Dark Sky Community.” While Borrego Springs is such a small community, it can serve as an example to other communities. There are only 25 streetlights in the downtown area and none in the residential areas. Additionally, there aren’t any fast food restaurants, big-box stores, and the nearest traffic light is 50 miles away!
Like noise and visual pollution, light pollution has become an environmental issue as well. The International Dark-Sky Association, a Tucson-based non-profit, has 53 chapters that lobby the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, the European Union, local cities, counties, states, and businesses for reductions in sky glare. According to Chad Moore, an association member who serves as the National Park Service night sky program manager, says, “Light domes from big cities can now be seen 200 miles away. These are parts of the sky that die.”
Since Borrego Springs is surrounded by 1,200 square miles of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in the continental U.S., it’s no surprise that it has long been a destination for astronomers and stargazers alike. The coalition of six, determined people from Borrego worked two years to receive the “Dark Sky” award and they successfully persuaded clubs, schools, malls and government agencies to retrofit, replace or simply turn off a number of bad lights in the community. The brightest spot in town is the gas station, and there’s even a roof over its fluorescent lights that’s used as a shield.
Kim Patten, the program’s director for the International Dark-Sky Association was quoted in the Miller-McCune article saying “There are presently no applications pending from prospective Dark Sky communities. Beyond strict lighting ordinances and enforcement,” she said, “applicants must show that they have broad support for dark skies and are educating the public about light pollution. A city of any size could qualify if it took the necessary steps. It doesn’t have to be small like Borrego or located in the desert. Even San Diego could apply.”
Something to think about next time you look up to gaze at Big Dipper.
Note: The photo above pictures the hooded and downward facing lights at a skate park in Borrego. They are designed to not pollute the night skies. Image via Miller-McCune.