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Things are not looking up for dark-sky watchers

By Ron Judd
Seattle Times

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Somewhere along the way, people stopped looking up. This is why Dave Ingram can’t tell the Albertsons story without breaking down.

Ingram has a lot of Albertsons stories, because the parking lot at the Kent, Wash., grocery store — those ungodly lights blaring everywhere — is the kind of spot he often selects to save the world, one glimpse at a time, through a telescope set up as sort of a trap.

“Guerrilla astronomy, I guess you would call it.”

One single peek on a single night many years ago has burnt a permanent place in Ingram’s brain, next to lifetime memories of stunning, clear nights in the world’s last dark places — nights when the Milky Way shone so bright that it cast a shadow on the ground.

This night, Ingram was not in the desert or on a mountaintop but at a supermarket in Seattle, when an elderly man of Indian heritage happened by. He looked at the telescope, looked at Ingram, and finally, sheepishly, responded to a gesture to c’mon over.

Tentative, the old man peered into the scope — through the wrong end. Redirected, he pressed his head to the eyepiece and saw a close-up of Saturn, rising in the night sky. For a long time, he did not move.

Then, “He just took off — gone,” Ingram says.

Half an hour later, an old VW bus pulled into the lot. Out popped the old man and three generations of his family, lining up at the telescope.

This is where Ingram, a 62-year-old retired Boeing researcher, has to stop talking and take deep breaths. If your life’s mission is to reconnect people to a vital part of their DNA, seeing the light in all those freshly opened eyes can get you ver­klempt.

“One of the kids told me the old man came bursting through the door at home, shut off the TV and ordered them all to come back to the store with him,” Ingram says. “That guy just didn’t look 85 anymore,” he continues, choking back tears. “If that doesn’t change your perspective …”

Tears on the eyepiece, it turns out, are not uncommon and rarely damaging to the equipment. But they’re still too rare. The sad truth, says Ingram, who heads a group of dark-sky advocates, is that the current bunch of us will be the first in the history of the planet to go most or all the way through life failing to grasp our place in the universe. Because we simply have never seen it.

“You can put anybody — I don’t care who they are — out under the stars for 30 minutes, and they start asking the big questions,” Ingram says. “Where else does that happen? You don’t ask big questions in a restaurant.”

But it’s more complicated than that. Even the small handful of people savvy, or just lucky, enough to realize this eventually walk outside, look up and find to their horror that the night sky — not that greenish-gray thing that passes for dark, but the profoundly ink-black, soul-bending, take-my-left-ear-but-leave-me-the-Starry-Starry-Night sky — simply is no more.

In the old world, you walked beneath the stars nightly because you had to, and the constellations became your compass, your friends, even your deities. Humans capable of using tools have been traipsing around under the stars for about 2.3 million years. Only in the past 135 have most of us severed our connection with what shines above.

This is partly by choice: “Civilized” societies spend less and less time outside. But it’s also partly by accident, or perhaps ignorance.

Since the revolutionary glow of Edison’s first light bulb in 1879, light has blasted darkness off the map with increasing ferocity. The stark phenomenon, glaringly documented from space, has exploded. Today, the entirety of Europe and virtually all of the United States east of the Mississippi River never falls into true darkness, as defined by a scale published by astronomer John E. Bortle in 2001.

The western U.S. is following suit, with small pockets of the deepest black now limited primarily to the desert Southwest. Today, 99 percent of Americans never routinely see a true dark sky. And by 2025, experts say, Americans will be lucky to have two or three places left inside their borders where one even exists.

Light pollution is the new normal in most of the developed world, says Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night, a new treatise on the problem and its solutions. Serious star aficionados, he says, find it easier to board a plane for Hawaii or Australia than engage in the crapshoot science of finding dark skies near their homes.

Light pollution, some scientists argue, has become a threat to our very well-being.

Much of the research is new, but documented environmental effects range from disrupted growth cycles of trees to the mass deaths of formerly star-navigating birds — up to a billion a year in the U.S. alone, by one estimate — that are tricked into colliding with brightly lit buildings.

Biologists within the National Park Service, in particular, have succeeded in making the preservation of darkness a key element in habitat planning. They’ve launched a federal initiative to battle light encroachment in wilderness lands.

If the impact on animal habitat is that severe, researchers now wonder, how does the lack of true darkness affect humans?

Early warning signs are troubling, with research suggesting links between perpetual light exposure and interruptions of the body’s natural hormonal cycles — perhaps contributing to obesity, depression and other maladies. One study showed a doubling of breast-cancer risk in women who work night shifts and suffer likely hormonal imbalances caused by interruptions in exposure to natural light and darkness.

Beyond all those worries is a growing fear of a less-tangible impact: on our souls. It’s a question that Bogard, an English professor at James Madison University, mulls daily.

“We’ve taken what once was one of the most common human experiences and made it one of the most rare,” he laments. “I think it has huge implications to our spirit, our psyche. For me it’s the difference between coming face-to-face with the universe and realizing your problems are just not that big — a real humility kind of thing. It’s pretty easy, if you never see the universe, to think this world is all there is.

“If you really see the night sky, you can’t help but evoke feelings of awe and wonder and gratitude and spirituality — all those things we sort of pooh-pooh, but are actually really important.”

It’s a problem for us today, he believes, but perhaps a greater one for tomorrow. Throughout modern history, a fascination with the universe inspired art, science, religion, philosophy and most other fields of inquiry, he notes.

“And now it’s just gone. I wonder: How many young Van Goghs are out there right now, not being inspired to paint the next night sky? It’s impossible to quantify what we’ve lost.”

Unlike many of the ways in which humans have fouled their own nest, this form of pollution is perhaps unique in that it is completely reversible.

In society today, light is equated with progress and safety. Ingram and other members of the International Dark-Sky Association engage in a delicate dance, hoping to convince governments that the damage from light pollution can be contained, even reversed, without the loss of truly useful light.

The simple solution: “full cutoff” lights that prevent rays from escaping skyward, where they reflect off particulates and create that ever-present, yellow/green glow we’re all beginning to begrudgingly accept as darkness.

Most industrial lighting — the worst offenders being the mercury vapor, high-pressure sodium or metal halide lights that illuminate parking lots, backyards, gas stations and even some streets — isn’t designed that way, but could easily be modified.

The time for new rules, and public education, is ripe, Bogard believes, because businesses, consumers and governments around the world are switching to long-lasting LED lights to save energy.

“It represents a real opportunity to go the other way,” he says. “The technology exists to have a lot more control over our lights.”

Dark-sky crusaders know political pressure won’t approach critical mass until more people realize what the lights take away from them. That ignorance is not a problem; it’s the solution, advocates say. The sense of wonder over not knowing is the very thing that’s always prompted big questions.

Some of those questions confound even the most expansive mind. What’s up there? Outside of our galaxy — the only one seen by the naked eye — try hundreds of billions of other galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of their own stars. And even that’s just a highly educated guess.

Whether it’s ingenious design or stupendous accident, it boggles the mind. And that is the point. Once people start looking, Ingram says, “layer by layer, the scales fall off of their eyes.”

Even in light-compromised areas, occasional clear nights can provide the sort of naked-eye viewing that allows people to re-establish the link to something they didn’t realize they’d lost.

Children, not yet jaded nor easily embarrassed, are the most receptive to the message. That’s critical, because kids who learn to love the night skies, the theory goes, will work to curb light pollution, or at least slow its growth.

“The kids pick it right up,” says Ingram, a frequent school-astronomy-program volunteer. “On the way home, they’ll be asking, ‘Dad, is that a bad light?’ ”

And that is why, as long as they’re able to stand, speak and point, dark-sky crusaders like Ingram will stay out there in parks, schools and the occasional Albertsons parking lot, pushing Generation Gizmo to power down, look up and reconnect with the sheer wonder that has, until recently, defined what it meant to be human.


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