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Stars vanish as light pollution increases

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Posted at 9:47 PM, Apr 25, 2013
and last updated 2013-04-26 01:12:16-04

NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT -- The sun sets, casting a peaceful glow over the plateaus that surround these arches. There is only the sound of the wind through the sagebrush and scrub oak, broken by the occasional caw of a crow.

When the last of the sunlight is finally extinguished, the stars reveal themselves before a crowd of people looking skyward in awe.

"Tonight we will get a show!" said Maureen Munden, a visitor to Natural Bridges National Monument with her husband, Rob.

"This is just incredible, this big sky!" he added.

Located about an hour from the town of Blanding in Utah's Four Corners area, Natural Bridges National Monument is famous for its "dark skies."

"You're seeing the sky the way the ancestral Pueblo saw it when they left here 700 years ago," said Gordon Gower, the "sky ranger" for Natural Bridges National Monument. "There's virtually no difference between what we see today and what the ancient inhabitants saw."

Natural Bridges is surrounded by a million acres of open land; mountains act as a buffer between Blanding's far away lights keeping the park enshrouded in darkness. The difference between night and day is striking.

"I'm in a place where there's so many lights. It's sad," said Wayne Hill, who lives in Spokane, Wash. "If we close all our blinds we still can't keep out the lights."

Gower said many visitors see the Milky Way for the first time in their lives.

"We estimate that if a child is born today in what we call western civilization, that they have a 50 percent chance -- maybe less -- of ever seeing a natural sky," he told FOX 13.

Examples of light pollution and better forms of lighting. Courtesy: Rachel Nydegger

Examples of light pollution and better forms of lighting. Courtesy: Rachel Nydegger

Many people aren't seeing the night skies because of light pollution. Scientists are documenting an increasing number of problems as a result of our apparent fear of the dark. It also costs billions in wasted energy.

"It's kind of like urban sprawl but it's more pernicious than that," said Jeremy Stanley, an amateur photographer who documents the night skies. His photos can be seen on Flickr.

As towns and cities grow, lights are added to keep us safe, provide security and get attention. But some say too much light can be a bad thing.

"My body was not set up with the way night and day were happening," said Annie Gilliland, a University of Utah student. "I have had a lot of sleeping issues. One of the first things one of my doctors told me, is a lot of people are having sleeping issues and it's probably due to artificial light at night."

Rachel Nydegger, a Utah State University astronomy student who has been researching light pollution, said other health problems include depression, headaches and cancer.

"There have been studies that have shown cancer rates increase in graveyard workers and that's because they're exposed to more blue light at night," she said.

Nydegger said extreme cases of lighting has affected wildlife migration patterns. Her research has also shown that crime statistics do not go down when lighting is brighter -- but it can when lighting is smarter.

"Thirty percent of your light is wasted," she said. "For the U.S., that's about $2.2 billion."

In the area she is researching, Nydegger said she calculated the Cache Valley alone could save more than $800,000 in electricity bills if it cut down on light pollution.

A map of Utah State University's campus that shows light pollution.

A map of Utah State University's campus that shows light pollution. Courtesy: Rachel Nydegger

Nydegger has tracked light pollution on USU's campus. The brighter areas are where the campus still uses older style lights that contribute to light pollution. The darker areas are where the campus has installed newer style lighting, designed to keep light pointed at the ground.

Many cities have already begun addressing light pollution in newer construction, but Nydegger said they have yet to retrofit the old-style lighting.

"They feel it's a waste of money. They feel like we should focus on making things good for now, we don't need to focus on those old fixtures because they're there," she said. "But you're going to save money over time by putting those (newer) light fixtures on."

Nydegger said the average consumer can save money by taking a few simple steps:

  • Close the blinds to keep light from escaping.
  • Light only what you need lit.
  • Use shields to keep light from spreading into the sky, focusing it on the ground.

Natural Bridges National Monument is the first to be declared "light free" by the International Dark Sky Association, a group dedicated to preserving the night skies. The park has taken steps to keep out the light, including limitations on lighting.

"Being for natural skies and against light pollution doesn't mean you're against lighting," Gower said. "It means you're against bad lighting. The problem in our cities isn't that we have lots and lots of lights, but so many of them are poorly designed."

Natural Bridges National Monument offers astronomy shows twice a week beginning in May for visitors, to show them the beauty of the universe and emphasize why it is important to combat light pollution.

"The night sky is just as much a part of the environment that we are to protect as the landscape, the wildlife and the plants and the cultural and historical artifacts," Gower said.