Seeing stars: why we should turn the lights off

The streets of Carlsbad Village went black not long ago. While the darkness engulfed the neighborhood for only an hour or so, and the blackout was planned by SDG&E, it was refreshing in a sense. I halfway hoped to see the stars, but understood the foolishness of the idea.
We’re afraid of the dark; of the uncertainties lurking around the corner, cloaked in a shadowy disguise. Only recently has the human race felt the strong urge to somehow shorten or diminish the night. In our effort to micromanage the natural world, we’ve eliminated the grandest light show known to man.
Light pollution is a real problem with simple solutions.  Verlyn Klinkenborg penned an excellent article for National Geographic on the subject (“Our Vanishing Night,” November 2008). Klinkenborg argues that “light pollution is largely the result of bad lighting design, which allows artificial light to shine outward and upward into the sky” and that “ill-designed lighting washes out the darkness of night and radically alters the light levels — and light rhythms — to which many forms of life, including ourselves, have adapted.”
Basically, what Klinkenborg is implying is that by altering the clockwork of night and day, we sever all ties with an ancient relationship. Anybody who camps for an extended period of time knows bedtime falls when the sun sets, and coffee is ready by the time it rises. By lighting the night, our circadian rhythm is modified for the worse, simply because we abide by what time our watch says it is. And it might seem like a stretch, but researchers are even beginning to blame light pollution for various health ailments. 
What’s worse is that many nocturnal animals especially depend on dark skies, and it is believed thousands of birds, bats, frogs and turtles die each year simply because they are confused by urban lights. 
The city of Carlsbad recently agreed to replace more than 7,000 high-pressure sodium streetlights throughout town with “high-efficiency” induction lights. While this is a positive move economically and environmentally, I was under the impression it would do little to dampen light pollution. As it turns out, the project has been approved by the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit organization committed to keeping the skies, well, dark. Carlsbad is one step closer to becoming a dark sky community.
By definition a dark sky community is “a town, city, municipality, or other legally organized community that has shown exceptional dedication to the preservation of the night sky.” Flagstaff, Ariz., was the first city in the world to obtain the designation, and it’s fairly dark there. It’s possible to see stars from Flagstaff’s city center sometimes.
As any local fan of dark skies presumably knows, Palomar Mountain is blessed with a unique geographical position in San Diego County, as light pollution throughout the area is blocked by a marine layer. This explains the location of the observatory. In my opinion, it’s sad millions of people in the area are so far detached from the night sky, and are forced to take a long drive to witness the magnificence above.
I once hiked rim-to-rim at the Grand Canyon, and while camping on the bottom of the canyon, where no artificial light exists, I experienced what would amount to a stargazer’s fantasy. Up above, the brilliance of the Milky Way sparkled like a sea of diamonds. A star gazing poet once said “as I look up, I realize that a city holds nothing but blasphemy of the sky, for who needs lights and buildings, when all the light you ever need is a million tiny dots in the sky?”
When is the last time you had that experience?


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