Lights out for stargazers


National Park scientist Chad Moore discusses a program to preserve darkness.


By Susan Cosier


Photo by Dan and Cindy Duriscoe

These days the only stars we expect to see while in a major metropolis are the sort from Hollywood and not the Pleiades or Big Dipper. You go the great outdoors for the celestial kind. Which is why Chad Moore was so dismayed to discover that the stars above Pinnacles National Monument in California where he worked were washed out by nearby lights. He decided to do something about it, and a year later the National Parks Night Sky Team, comprised of Moore and fellow amateur astronomer Dan Durisco, began collecting data on what park visitors can and can’t see when looking towards the heavens. Now in its eighth year, the program is growing, adding to its library of data, and helping to preserve our view of the universe from planet earth. Plenty caught up with Moore to discuss why preserving darkness is important, what he expected when he started the program, and what comes next.

 

What are some of the worst consequences of light pollution?

Speaking from a park perspective, it’s the loss of the night sky in peoples’ everyday lives - on their annual camping trip or a drive out to the country. We’re at the point where parks are the last refuges. But if I were to take off my park ranger hat and talk about this nationwide, the biggest issue may be energy. There is a substantial amount of energy wasted that is also light pollution. Those two concerns are completely compatible. Lights have gotten brighter and brighter and it hasn’t made things any safer. We’ve used a lot more energy and we’re just chasing our tail.

What do you think should be done about the increased use of light and its consequences?

There are hundreds of small and a few large cities around the country that have really taken a good look at their outdoor lighting and made changes. You’re still able to have all the features and conveniences of modern technology and a 24-hour culture. Roughly 3 to 6 percent of all US electrical use is related to outdoor lighting. By using dark sky-friendly lighting and proper illumination levels, you can really make a sizeable reduction in total US electrical use. One percent would be easy to achieve and that’s big. If it weren’t for the International Dark Sky Association, a few astronomers, and now the National Park Service, no one would understand this issue. But we still need the Department of Energy to really take a look at this and we need the lighting industry to continue to take this seriously—they are, but they’ve still got a ways to go.

What do you hope to accomplish with the data that you collect?

Helping park rangers and park superintendents understand what is causing the light pollution–where it’s coming from and to what degree it’s impacting their park–is very important. Many of those parks take this information and they first address their own lights. Many parks have lights at campground restrooms that can really be improved. But the ultimate solution, since the great majority of light pollution is coming from outside our boundaries, is for the park and the surrounding communities to partner together.  

When you first started did you expect the success that you’ve had so far?

No. It’s been great. I’ve never been involved in anything that has been like this project. It’s to the point now where I don’t feel like I’m pushing it–I feel like it’s pulling me. When we started, I would give a talk and ask the audience how many had heard of light pollution before. Very few people would raise their hand. Now it’s always the majority of the audience—in just less than eight years. There are a lot more options for night sky-friendly lighting fixtures out there: ones for your porch, for cities, for businesses. And almost every manufacturer has a selection of lights. It’s up to the people installing these, from the homeowner on up. Just take a little bit of time to learn a little bit more about it and see if you can make a greener choice.

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