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Mountains of light

Tom Boyd

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.– Alfred, Lord TennysonIn the spring of 1996, a bright, streaking object appeared in the night sky. Astronomers around the world trained their telescopes upon its light, tracking it as it arced through the night; marveling at the idea that it would be hundreds of years before anyone saw comet Hyutake again. It was one of those moments astronomers wait years to witness, and spend years talking about afterward.One of those astronomers was Rick Dunford, an Eagle resident and Valley Lumber construction guru who also happens to have a passion for stargazing. Although he is a self-proclaimed amateur (and was even more so back in 1996), Dunford has had a lifelong fascination with outer space.”I’ve always been an armchair astronomer,” he says. “It came from my mom, actually she was really into science fiction, and I became a big science fiction buff, reading (Isaac) Asimov and all the pantheon of early science fiction writers.”And for many years, Dunford has also been a member of the Town of Eagle Planning and Zoning commission. The two roles astronomer and city planning commissioner may seem very different, but they come together on one issue in particular: light pollution.Outdoor lighting has a dimming effect on Dunford’s nighttime astronomy sessions. As light travels upward and outward, it washes out the night sky and makes stars, nebulas, clusters, comets, and galaxies more difficult to see.As an astronomer, Dunford wants to keep the night skies dark.As a planning and zoning commissioner, Dunford is able to do something about it.On several of the nights Dunford watched Hyutake hover in the sky, he also hovered over plans for new buildings, remodels, and developments in planning and zoning meetings in Eagle. Every time they meet, he says, the planning commission talks about lighting.But it may not be enough. Estimates from a group of Italian astronomers indicate that the United States is on course to blot out the view of the night sky virtually nationwide by the year 2025. Even here in the valley, our view of the stars would be lost.Studies like that are disconcerting to Dunford.”It concerns me very much,” he says. “I don’t see the county or any of these other entities moving aggressively to control the light pollution (as the county grows bigger). I’m just standing on the fringes and saying, ‘Hey, guys, just turn them down a little bit, just direct them right.'”There are no hard and fast facts on how much light has been added to the valley’s night sky over the past 40 years but there is no doubt that many of the stars once visible from the valley floor are now blotted out.Losing the view of the night sky, Dunford says, would be a tragedy. His nights spent stargazing would be lost, as would his imaginative treks through time and space.”Much of it takes place in the mind for me,” Dunford says. “It has to do with, ‘I know damn well we’re not alone, but they’re a long way away.’ Also there is the element of time when I’m looking at the Andromeda (Galaxy), I know it’s coming toward us at a very high speed, but the light coming into my eye is 2 million years old.”Those kinds of realizations lead him to wonder: what was the Earth like 2 million years ago? What was happening in Colorado 2 million years ago? And even more puzzling: the light that hits his eye from Andromeda is 2 million years old so where is Andromeda now?Fading starlightGuessing what life was like 2 million years ago is an imaginative exploration, but we know much more about our recent history. In the past 40 years the population of Eagle County has grown tremendously, from 4,677 in Eagle County in 1960 to nearly 41,659 heading into 2001. And with each person comes a new set of lights: lights for the porch, lights for the car, lights for the parking lots, lights for the garage, lights for signs and lights for safety. The new big box stores bring massive doses of light, as does the strip mall in Edwards.The lights that give shoppers a sense of safety also dampen our view of the most astounding, profound natural view possible: the view of the universe itself.”It’s the loss of human heritage, the ability to walk out under a dark sky and wonder how many stars there are, how far away they are, could we ever travel there, and what is the nature of the universe,” says Bob Gent, spokesman and member of the board for the International Dark Sky Association, which works worldwide with 12,000 members from 75 countries to curb light pollution.”These are the kinds of questions which stir us to study science, write prose and poetry,” Gent says. “It stirs the imagination. There’s no limit to what can be done by appreciating the beauty of the night.”Light pollution probably isn’t a top priority for most people as they go through their day, or even at night, as they flick their porch lights on (or off). Lighting is a fact of life a necessity in some cases, an amenity in others.”Most people are afraid of the dark,” Gent says. “They want to light up everything as bright as day so people are no longer afraid of the night.”Gent admits this makes sense: Lighting the highways, byways, alleyways and front porches of our valley is an important service provided by our municipalities, power providers, and government agencies. It fulfills a fundamental need, one that touches our most primal roots. Light, for all its star-blocking glare, makes us feel safe.On the other hand, there is astronomy a science that is suffering from increased doses of night lights, which interfere with their telescopes. Astronomers, Gent says, are inspired by their first childhood visions of twinkling stars and meteors. Lose that, he says, and humanity is forsaking one of its oldest pastimes.When the two interests come head-to-head, Astronomy often loses.But that isn’t how it has to be, Gent says.”Nuclear waste, landfills, destroying the atmosphere, millions and billions of tons of all kinds of pollution in the atmosphere these are all very difficult to solve,” Gent says. “But in the case of light pollution, you can solve the problem and save money. What other environmental problem has such a palatable solution?”A darker futureThe International Dark Sky Association (IDSA) has a set of recommended guidelines for municipalities and counties interested in curbing light pollution. These aren’t the kind of guidelines that are going to be adopted in Las Vegas anytime soon, but they have proven to work well in places like Tucson and Flagstaff, Ariz., which have astronomical observatories in their midst.”In many respects, the skies are getting brighter, but in some cases, where communities have taken action, they’re not,” Gent says.There’s no need to forego safety for the purpose of saving a view of the night sky, according to the IDSA. Light only causes a problem when it is not directed downward, toward the earth, where it is needed. Simple, low-tech solutions like lamp covers have a positive effect shining the light where it belongs and keeping it out of the sky where its only effect is to blot out stars.Overuse is also a problem. In our community, some second-home owners often leave lights on for months at a time while they are away from their homes. Gent and Dunford say these folks could do a lot to keep light pollution low by installing different kinds of lighting. Dimmer lights, motion-detector fixtures, or directional fixtures can do a lot to keep the valley’s stars bright.And this, it seems, is as important to planners in Eagle County. The new Eagle County comprehensive plan addresses light pollution in section 3.9, goal No. 53.”As we continue to develop in the Eagle Valley it becomes an ever-more important issue to the public,” says Rebecca Leonard, senior planner for Eagle County. “It’s one of those things, I guess, when you’re looking to buy a house there are certain things that are blatantly obvious that people are looking for and then there are those things that are difficult to put into words. But when it starts to deteriorate, people notice it.”Leonard says the comprehensive plan is only a guideline, and that stricter light-pollution guidelines would have to go into county regulations to have a strong effect.Lou Meskiman, who has been in the valley over 30 years, says he’s noticed a diminishing view of the stars since the time he first came here.”People aren’t aware,” he says. “What happens is, if you’ve been here over the years, well, we’ll say it’s diminishing. But people come up here from the city and they think they’re seeing all kinds of stars compared to what they see (back in the city).”Dunford recounts stories of 911 calls during the California blackout. People in Oakland called the emergency dispatch because, when all the lights went out in the city, people wanted to know what all those lights were up in the sky. They had been so long without a view of the cosmos that they didn’t know what stars looked like.As growth continues in the valley, Meskiman says, we have a responsibility to protect the views we’ve become accustomed to. But new developments mean more bright lights blocking the sky.”The prime example is the shopping complexes in Avon, that’s just wiped out the stars,” Meskiman says. “Now we have to go out farther and farther away from town to see the stars, and that’s something we have to address.”The Wal-Mart and Home Depot stores in Avon keep their signs and parking lot very brightly lit all through the night. Managers in both stores said they would try to answer our questions or have someone answer them, but hadn’t by press time Feb. 23.What we are (and aren’t) doing about itAvon passed a light pollution ordinance in December of 2004, becoming the last major municipality in the county to address the problem. No one the Vail Trail spoke with at the county, or Home Depot and Wal-Mart, knew if the parking lot lighting employed there meets the criteria of the new ordinance.But Avon residents should see a progressive improvement in lighting techniques over the next five years, says Avon Senior Planner Eric Heidemann. The new ordinance calls for directional lighting which shines only downward on all new housing and commercial developments. It also calls for all Avon lighting to meet the ordinance criteria within five years.”Our intent is not to have everybody, in four-and-a-half years, come out and replace their lights,” Heidemann says. Instead, residents will get doses of lighting “education” bi-annually, with hopes that people will realize the importance of downward lighting and make the change on their own.Heidemann says he doesn’t expect everyone to spend the time and money required to meet the ordinance, but he says large, commercial developments like those in the Village at Avon will be made to comply with the ordinance.Avon is a bit behind the game in comparison to other municipalities. Thanks, in large part, to Dunford’s work, the Town of Eagle has a strong lighting code, which employs downward-directed street lighting and codes on something called “light trespass,” which keeps light from spilling onto neighbors’ property.”It’s definitely something we’re concerned about,” says Elisabeth Eckel, planner with the Town of Vail. “When one drives through Vail, you’ll notice that it’s a very charming town to look at, and that’s because we regulate the types of lights, we regulate flood lights, and landscape lighting must be used in good taste.”Vail also has height restrictions, and encourages dimmer, rather than brighter, lights.Gypsum planner Ken Long says his town has passed strict guidelines on street lighting and commercial lighting because, he says, it saves money, prevents waste, and cuts down on light pollution.Lights are still needed, he notes, for safety.”It’s mostly for protection,” he says. “You know, people go out walking at night, and also this is for protection for our emergency services people. If you were a cop and you had a call, you wouldn’t want to walk around a neighborhood that wasn’t lit up.”Downward-directed lights are a win-win solution, advocates say, because they keep houses, streets, roads and parks well-lit, but don’t interfere with the views of the night sky.Fade outWith our prized, high-mountain location, the valley is home to several avid astronomers, Dunford among them. On any given night, these stargazers can be found scanning the sky with telescopes, or perhaps a pair of binoculars, or sometimes just the naked eye. With clear skies and dry air, the Western mountains have become a rocky cradle for budding scientists, some who move on to academic study, and some who are content with armchair status.If we are careful, we can keep this element of our society intact.If we are not, we can lose the heritage that Dunford and Gent speak of so passionately.The good news is this: there are many pressing issues gnawing at the bankrolls and budgets of our county’s leaders but none have a solution so simple and inexpensive as light pollution. And preserving the view of our night skies should be an issue that carries weight, even if it’s not a top priority. After all, scientific research of the past millennia has shown that, when it comes right down to it, everything around us is made of stars. The elements which make up the building blocks of our world were first created in the bellies of ancient fireballs floating through the vastness of the early universe. Since then stardust has found a way to coalesce into planets, moons, nebulae, rocks, plants, and eventually into intelligent, sentient beings: US.Perched atop our mountains, looking out at the universe, we are one end of a kind of universal loop. Or, as cosmologist John D. Barrow has said, when we look up into the stars we are the eyes of the universe gazing back upon itself. We are the way the universe knows itself.If we didn’t first see the stars and wonder about them, we may never have generated these ideas in the first place. Without a view of stars, future generations may lack the inspiration needed to study, explore, and learn more about human origins and the origins of our planet. If we are not careful, the light we employ to illuminate our world could also shroud us in ignorance. VTTom Boyd can be reached for comment at tboyd@vailtrail.com.The International Dark Skies Association recommended solutions to light pollution1. Quality lighting designs are really just common sense approaches to lighting. Let’s not tolerate all the bad lighting; let’s get rid of it.2. Shine the light down, where it is needed. Control the light output to locations where it is needed; don’t waste it. Use quality lighting fixtures.3. Use time controls (or dimmers, or other controls) to insure that light is there when needed, and not there when it is not.4. Design and install lighting to insure that glare is minimized. Most all glare comes from poor fixtures or poor installations.5. Use the right amount of light for the task, not overkill. “More light” is not good design. When not blinded by glare, the eye is a marvelous instrument and can see very well at what seems to be quite low lighting levels. In addition, going from over-lit areas to darker areas means that we don’t see too well (transient adaptation), and the opposite holds as well.6Use energy efficient light sources. Light sources vary greatly in their efficiency. Consider especially the use of low-pressure sodium lamps; they are the most efficient of all, and they are also strongly preferred by astronomers since the light output by LPS is essentially all one color and can be filtered out quite well. LPS is excellent for street lighting, parking lots, security lighting, and other applications where color rendering is not critical. Careful lighting design can be done using LPS for essentially any application.


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