I-Team: The Fight to Save Natural Darkness
Las Vegas has long been known for its spectacular lights; the neon displays that attract tourists the way a shiny objects appeal to magpies.
An author who has just published a new book about light pollution says the lights are nothing more than environmental contamination.
"Ever since there have been humans, they’ve had the experience of walking out at night and going face to face with the universe. That has inspired art, religion and philosophy. That experience is being lost. Most Americans have never seen the Milky Way. That kind of cost is difficult to gauge," said writer Paul Bogard.
He is not anti-light, but Bogard is certainly pro-darkness. His book, The End of Night, is sort of a love letter to the wonders of the night sky and the importance of darkness.
"Darkness is very important for us in many ways. It is important to our body, our physical health, our mental, psychological, even spiritual health. It’s important for the environment in which we live," Bogard said.
From the extraterrestrial vantage point of a NASA satellite, the relentless march of illumination over the past century is clear. Most of us live in an ocean of man-made light. There are dark places left, but light is quickly overwhelming them and by 2025, the U.S. will have no truly dark places.
"We humans evolved like all life on earth in bright days and dark nights, and we need both for optimal health. Our bodies have never adjusted to all this brightness at night."
It’s hardly a surprise that Bogard’s book starts with his visit to the brightest place on the planet — Las Vegas — home to the single brightest manmade light on earth, the Luxor beam, a concentrated stream of light from an array of enormous bulbs.
Like millions of tourists, Bogard is dazzled by the astounding neon creations that beckon visitors to Las Vegas, but an astronomer walking on the Strip might be able to spot a dozen stars, instead of the 2,500 to 3,000 the human eye could see away from the city lights.
The problem isn’t light, Bogard says, it’s wasted light. Gas stations as bright as mini-supernova’s blasting out light in every direction or massive stadium lights that often stay on all night, car lots that need the output of a small nuke plant to keep their jalopies illuminated all night?
There is darkness on the edge of town at places like Red Rock National Conservation Area, but even the darkest places are overwhelmed by the inescapable glow of so much wasted light.
"Imagine the lights in your house. We almost never have just a bare bulb in a socket or fixture. We will always have a shade on that light, and the concept is the same for lights outside."
Unlike some environmental challenges, light pollution can be fixed, Bogard said. In Summerlin and other parts of the northwest valley, for instance, street lights are lower and more shielded. Light is focused down where it is needed not up where it is wasted. You can see the dramatic difference between the shielded lights of Summerlin Parkway and the unshielded lights of U.S. 95.
Entire neighborhoods have no street lights at all, just small lights for home addresses. Residents love it. Bogard says too much light is bad for human health, so much so that working the night shift is now considered its own health threat because of an increased cancer risk.
Excessive light is a cause of widespread sleep disorders. It is a more direct threat to hundreds of other species, including birds and turtles. The bats which feed on moths drawn to the Luxor light, for instance, gorge themselves but fly so far out of their way that it ends up a net loss.
The same state that is home to the brightest spot also has some of the darkest such as the Great Basin National Park was created, in part because of its scenic vistas, especially at night.
"We do have some of the darkest skies in the country and you can see the Milky Way galaxy like you would never believe it, sometimes it looks like clouds, the stars are so clustered together.The sky over us was the same sky you would have seen 200 to300 years ago, when Lewis and Clark were crossing the continent," said Paul DePrey, Great Basin superintendent.
Even though it’s 400 miles from Las Vegas, wasted light is already impinging on the Great Basin’s night views. Bogard thinks the darkness must be saved before it’s all gone.
"Light is miraculous, wonderful, beautiful but we are using so much of it in unnecessary amounts," DePrey said.
On Sept. 5 - 7, the Great Basin National Park will welcome the public to its annual three-day, star-watching event, presided over by a group called The Dark Rangers.