Light Pollution Clouds the Night Sky
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Credit: Photograph by Brad Goldpaint

Like the professional astronomers working at McDonald Observatory, the amateurs at Limpia Crossing, and the hundreds of tourists drawn to weekly "star parties" in the observatory's outdoor amphitheater, I've come to Texas to see the darkness. Across the country, as cities sprawl into suburbs and suburbs metastasize into exurbs, with the amount of artificial lighting exploding alongside every new McMansion, strip mall, and superhighway, the night sky, in its purest form, is increasingly becoming an endangered species. If you live in a decent-size metropolitan area, chances are you rarely glimpse any but a handful of the brightest stars and planets. A clear view of the solar system – and that awesome, unmooring, sublime, occasionally terrifying feeling that comes over us when we bear witness to the vastness of the universe and recognize our infinitesimal place in it – had been a routine nocturnal experience for the bulk of human history. Now it's become rarefied and, for some, unimaginable.

Ed Krupp, the director of Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory for the past four decades, has said that in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake knocked out much of the city's power, the observatory began to receive panicked phone calls about "the strange sky." "We finally realized what we were dealing with," Krupp told 'The Los Angeles Times.' "The stars were in fact so unfamiliar, they called us wondering what happened." Local police reported similar calls in which residents asked if the quake might have been caused by a curious "silver cloud" in the sky. This turned out to be the Milky Way – which, today, two-thirds of the U.S. population and one-fifth of the world's cannot see.

How did our own solar system become so unfamiliar as to now seem like an alien menace? The short answer is light pollution: the fact that much outdoor lighting used at night is wildly inefficient, overly bright, poorly targeted, improperly shielded, and, in many cases, completely unnecessary. Dark-sky advocates don't exactly love the "pollution" part of the term. "That's the most accurate description of what's going on, but people hear it and think I'm going to chain myself to the nearest streetlamp," mutters Wren, who has become one of the leading dark-sky evangelists in the country. Still, the net effects are undeniably environmental. Light pollution not only douses the night sky to the point of unrecognizability for much of the world, but also represents a feckless waste of energy, with the end result being more greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

The U.S. spends $11 billion each year on unnecessary outdoor lighting, according to the International Dark-Sky Association, which sounds like an organization that should be worried about keeping James Bond tied to a chair in a volcanic lair but is actually the leading advocacy group dedicated to combating light pollution. The behavior of nocturnal animals, the IDA points out, is also negatively affected by gratuitous outdoor lighting, and scientists have even linked serious human health risks (including breast cancer) to excessive nighttime exposure to bright, artificial light.

"It's not like a species going extinct," Wren says. "The sky isn't going anywhere, and we aren't harming the stars. But we are encapsulating ourselves in these bubbles of light around our major population centers that make it impossible to see the stars at night. And the consequences for that ... well, I have no idea. But we're losing something ineffable. Mystical. Would van Gogh have been able to paint Starry Night today? I'm not sure. Saint-Rémy, the town where he painted it, has some of the worst light pollution in France."

Talk of "ineffable, mystical" loss might sound a tad nebulous and abstracted. I thought so – until I stood on that catwalk, as the twilight faded to pitch, and looked up. We were standing in one of the darkest places in the United States. The seven-county region surrounding McDonald Observatory has passed strict lighting ordinances that have helped to make the area "the dark-sky capital of Texas," in the words of Wren, whose advocacy played a key role in getting those laws on the books: At 28,000 square miles, it's the largest contiguous space in North America legislatively set aside to protect dark skies. The area includes the gargantuan Big Bend National Park, the darkest park in the continental U.S., which runs along the border with Mexico – big enough, at 800,000 acres, to hold nearly the entire state of Rhode Island.

I live in New York City; before that, Detroit and Atlanta. Still, I thought I'd seen plenty of starry night skies in my life – in northern Michigan and upstate New York, at a friend's cabin in Maine, vacationing on a Greek island. But I've never caught a glimpse of the astral plane as dramatically unobstructed as this one. Initially, it's overwhelming, like suddenly realizing you've swum too far out into the ocean. At the same time, being reduced to such a supplicant state of awe feels jarring and unfamiliar. Post-childhood, how often do you spend any significant amount of time with your head tilted back, gazing straight up?

Wren directs my eyes to the Northern Cross, Orion's Belt, Polaris, the Summer Triangle. Occasionally, he uses a device that shoots light-saber beams straight up to the black firmament, tracing star patterns as casually as if it's a speckled chalkboard. "The center of the galaxy is right ... here," he says, circling the brightest part of the Milky Way, then chuckling. "Pretty cool."

Eventually, Wren goes off to bed. But I remain outside, lingering at the base of one of the big domes. There are about 3,000 stars out tonight, versus the dozen or so you might see in downtown Austin. Those closest to the horizon shimmer like flecks of tinsel; farther up, they're more fixed and intense, some as tiny as pinpricks, others thick as pearls. I see shooting stars and satellites. The white streak of the Milky Way looks like a gaseous bruise. I think about how I'm looking up at thousands of violent thermonuclear reactions, taking place trillions of miles away.

Down here, though, it's very peaceful. The only sound is the shrill, chirrupy drone of invisible desert insects. I'm staying at the Astronomer's Lodge, dorm-style accommodations for scientists visiting the observatory. The rooms have twin beds (with star patterns on the comforters) and blackout curtains (because, of course, the astronomers work all night). Every time I begin to wander in the direction of my room, I notice something else up above and stop in my tracks. Occasionally, the dark shape of an astronomer glides past me, silent as a ghost.

"In the centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution, evening appeared fraught with menace," the historian A. Roger Ekirch writes in his lively cultural history of the night, 'At Day's Close'. Darkness brought with it threats both real and imagined: murderers and bandits, witches and demons, pestilential night "fogges" and "vapours" thought to carry sickness and death. "All forms of artificial illumination – not just lamps but torches and candles – helped early on to alleviate nocturnal anxieties," Ekirch notes.

The first streetlamps were lit with candles and, later, kerosene. With electricity came incredibly bright arc lights (which involved heating up vaporized carbon particles until they glowed), used in the late 19th century in cities like Paris. Incandescent lighting followed, and quickly spread. In 1891, Telluride, Colorado, became the first city in the world to use alternating current to power its streetlights, memorably described in Thomas Pynchon's 'Against the Day': "The high-country darkness . . . soon gave way to an unholy radiance ahead, in the east. It was the wrong color for a fire, and daybreak was out of the question, though the end of the world remained a possibility."

Bob Parks, the executive director of the IDA, says utility companies heartily embraced streetlights in order to avoid the costly and inefficient process of spinning down their generators at night, when home and business power usage dropped precipitously. By the 1950s, a new technology called high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting allowed streetlamps to burn 10 to 20 times brighter than incandescents. "And they didn't cost much more," Parks says. "So people were like, 'Fine, give it to me.'"

Parks lives just outside Washington, D.C. When I visited him over the summer, I made time to swing by an exhibit at the Smithsonian dedicated to Thomas Edison, described by Parks as "the first great salesman of lighting." Displays featured components from Edison's first power plant (on Pearl Street in downtown New York) and a photo of the first electric sign (spelling out the word EDISON in giant letters), but I couldn't help squinting askance at the rows of antique bulbs, which, after several weeks of my talking to people about light pollution, suddenly took on a sinister appearance, as if they were a collection of medieval torture instruments.

I met Parks for an early dinner at a chain chopped-salad restaurant. He was wearing round, rimless glasses, a green polo shirt, and khaki pants, with a tablet computer slung across his chest like a messenger's bag and his eyeglass case strapped onto a belt holster. A boyish 57-year-old, despite his white hair and beard, Parks possesses the soothing manner of someone who works in children's television, perhaps with puppets. He told me that he built his first telescope as a 12-year-old Boy Scout, from a kit. He loved the scope, but he had no further interest in astronomy for the next three decades or so, until the day he began flipping through the stargazing magazines left around the office by one of his employees. (Parks owned a multimedia design company.) He hadn't realized you could pick up scopes so cheaply, and so he bought himself a nice little eight-inch SCT (Schmidt-Cassegrain, a popular, compact consumer design) and started taking it out into his yard in Alexandria, Virginia, where, on a good night, he was lucky to see 10 stars.

Later, this prompted him to buy 10 dark acres on top of Cave Mountain in West Virginia and set up a camper there. Around the same time, he joined a local astronomy club, where he learned about the IDA. Like a hacker hired by a corporation to protect its servers from other hackers, Parks realized he could bring special skills to bear on this particular issue. Ironically, beginning in high school, he'd spent years working as a lighting designer, mostly for rock bands, his duties ranging from straight stage lighting to Hendrix-style psychedelic light shows. In college, Parks took upper-level physics courses on lighting, and continued in the business after graduation, working for A&M Records with touring artists like Tim Curry, of 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' and a Japanese techno act called the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Parks is today a member of the Illuminating and Engineering Society of North America. Disappointingly, its members do not refer to themselves as the Illuminati.