Ranger Trails: Star Power: Taking some inventory of the night sky

Strangely enough, most Americans find ourselves in the dark on the subject of light pollution. I used to figure light pollution was a minor toxic spill — just made fish dizzy without actually killing them. Wrong.

NASA, the federal agency that put the first dude on the moon, defines light pollution as “a growing environmental problem that threatens to erase the night sky before its time.”

NASA’s experts report on their website, Science News, a proliferation of artificial lights glowing nearly everywhere means the Milky Way has become invisible to two-thirds of the world’s population. There was a time when almost everybody on Earth could see this fuzzy Frisbee that features hundreds of billions of stars.

But no more.

NASA blames streetlights, outdoor advertising, homes, schools and airports for “the inadvertent illumination of the atmosphere.”

It’s a head-scratching concept, this idea that the 200-watt incandescent bulb outside my house pollutes the sky. So, visit science.nasa.gov and view satellite imagery of North America at night. The U.S. looks like a black and white Christmas tree.

NASA explains why: “Every night billions of bulbs send their energy skyward where microscopic bits of matter — air molecules, airborne dust and water vapor droplets — reflect much of the wasted light back to Earth.”

Nickolos Myers, a park ranger at Colorado National Monument, will talk about light pollution at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at Book Cliff View near Saddlehorn Picnic Area. His talk precedes the 8 p.m. “Star Party,” a collaboration between the park and Western Colorado Astronomy Club for stargazers to study planets, constellations and nebulae.

“Light pollution has increased dramatically, especially in developing countries and rural areas,” Myers said recently. “It affects people and wildlife.”

Not necessarily in a healthy way.

While towering lamps of blazing energy that switch on automatically at dusk every day to make our neighborhoods, streets and shopping malls safer, they unintentionally beam heavenward. That’s real efficient.

Wasted energy can spell catastrophe for wildlife. Scientists have evidence indicating artificial lights threaten certain species.

At Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida, biologists discovered baby sea turtles were disoriented by massive arrays of artificial light in nearby communities. Instead of crawling toward water after hatching on the beach, newborn turtles turn 180 degrees inland toward city lights. If these misguided turtles aren’t run over by cars or attacked by land critters, they cook to death during the day from sun exposure when they should be swimming underwater.

This news isn’t exactly new. In April 2003, National Geographic reported several hundred species of birds risk colliding with night-lit towers when they migrate across North America. In 1981, more than 10,000 birds flew smack into floodlit smokestacks at a power plant in Kingston, Ontario.

As scientists study harmful effects of light pollution on wildlife, it’s good to remember how a twinkling, unpolluted sky inspired an artist like Vincent Van Gogh not so long ago.

“For my part I know nothing with any certainty,” he wrote, “but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

At the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, astronomers have trouble viewing the heavens through powerful telescopes because of the ambient light from Honolulu and Maui. The observatory recommends streetlights be retrofitted with a shield that prevents them from shining upward.

Solutions to light pollution appear easier and cheaper than cleaning up an oil spill or reducing smog. But you know it won’t happen overnight.

Sandstrom is a park ranger at Colorado National Monument and teaches at Colorado Mesa University. If you have an interesting story to share with readers, he can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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