Almost anyone who has camped, hiked or just enjoyed an evening sitting beneath a majestic inky blanket of sky studded with twinkling stars can understand the value of unadulterated darkness. There is a uniquely human pleasure, and a uniquely human lesson, that comes with being able to stand on the Earth and view the universe.
But as more and more communities succumb to all-night skyglow (the ring of artificially colored light that surrounds cities, sports arenas, shopping centers, etc.), the places where we can still see stars are becoming more and more rare -- requiring, for people living in cities and even outer-ring suburbs, longer and longer drives to access.
According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), light pollution isn't a necessary byproduct of development or even of dense communities. Rather, it's a product of poor and inefficient lighting design, and with better equipment, it's a problem that we are very capable of solving, using tools as simple as these approved fixtures to control the amount of light that leaks into areas where it's not directly needed.
Officials in Scotland and others around the light-polluted developed world are devoting care and planning to preserving the night sky by creating International Dark-Sky Parks, International Dark-Sky Communities and (though we have yet to see one of these in the world) International Dark-Sky Reserves. According to this post by Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG:
2009 has been designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), marking the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope. The excitement is starting early, with Galloway Forest Park in Scotland announcing its plans to become Europe’s first “dark sky park.”
...The certification process is challenging. According to the Guardian, "to earn dark sky park status, officials in Galloway will submit digital photographs of the night sky taken through a fisheye lens. Their application must be supported by readings from light meters at different points in the park, and a list of measures that are being taken within the forest to prevent lights in and around the handful of farm buildings from spilling upwards into the sky and ruining the view."
There are currently two Dark-Sky Parks in the world, and both are in the United States (in Utah and northern Pennsylvania). The world's only Dark-Sky Community is also in the US -- in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Beyond its effect on our ability to view the stars, light pollution is linked to harmful effects on wildlife and human health, and is a symptom of the problem of wasted energy. Now, as awareness about dark-sky preservation continues to grow in the U.S. and around the world, locations safe from light pollution become not only valuable resources for amateur astronomers and photographers, but also noted destinations for tourists, and sources of local joy and pride. It's not hard to imagine that stargazing sites will be as valued by urban communities in the future as as traditional amenities like city parks and playgrounds.
So here's a question for 2009: Where will Seattle's first dark-sky park be?
Those interested in helping combat light pollution in and around Seattle can find a resource in the local IDA chapter, Dark Skies Northwest. The group's site has a list of local municipal glare and light ordinances, in addition to other information.
Photo credit: flickr/Matt McGee, Creative Commons license.