Monday, December 31, 2012

New Mexico: "Dark Skies"

Moon over Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, Alamogordo, New Mexico


Dark Skies ... sounds ominous, especially for New Mexico, famous for its sunrises, sunsets, and bowls of stars

If you google on "dark skies," the first thing that comes up is info on a past sci-fi, UFO-conspiracy theory TV series.

But "dark skies" also refers to a movement to prevent and reduce light pollution so we can enjoy the starry nights, no matter where we are.

I was aware of the concern about light pollution and some strategies to mitigate it, but I was unfamiliar with the term "dark skies" until I went to the astronomy event at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park earlier this month, hosted by Alamogordo's Amateur Astronomers Group.

Luminary attack

Before I go on, I'd like to tell the story of a luminary attack, permitted by, I can only assume: ignorance, negligent regard for one's neighbors, and lack of quality-of-life zoning.

I used to live in Jefferson City, Missouri, which is right on the Missouri River. On one side of the river, the city perches, for the most part, on a high bluff. On the other side of the river is a large flood plain, intersected by two highways, 54 and 63, that merge for a time as they cross the river into the city. The city airport is in the flood plain. The Katy Trail is also there, on the far fringe of the plain, along with a scattering of houses that have been there for many years. There is also a new-ish soccer-field complex. And there are farm fields. And a town that used to hug the river, but was mostly drowned in the Great Flood of 1993.  And a golf driving range.    

I lived on a street in Jefferson City that described a circle, part of which was on one of the bluffs overlooking the river and the flood plain. 

It used to be you could look out onto the plain and see a beautiful night sky. Or walk the Katy Trail at dusk, enjoying how the light dimmed as night fell.

After the Turkey Creek Golf Center went in, though, it was as if part of the plain had been taken over by land-grabbers who flooded the conquered territory with prison klieg lights. I think I first noticed it when I was walking or driving in the plain itself, and I saw that a house on the east side of the Katy Trail was bombarded by these lights. I use the word "bombard" deliberately. It must be akin to a psychological torture to be attacked by this remorseless light every night, with no escape. If I were the victim of such an assault, I think it would drive me mad.

Credit: Florida Atlantic University Astronomical Observatory

A crazy thing is that these business owners who invade their neighbors' houses and yards with impunity are paying for all of the wasted light that isn't shining on their driving range. This is called "unshielded" light.
There is lighting ("shielded") out there that would permit business users to enjoy their golfing activities without making neighbors' lives miserable. (I can only wonder about wildlife that had to relocate their lairs and nests to avoid the light.)

Credit: Grist

Back to Alamogordo

At the event, I mentioned to the astronomy group how lucky I felt to live in a city where I could see so many stars at night. I'd chalked it up to Alamogordo's low-rise profile and, other than that, hadn't put much thought into it.

One of the astronomy group members explained that this was no happy accident. Alamogordo promulgated the first (one of the first?) "light pollution" ordinances in the U.S. in 1990. This was in response to pressure from the nearby Apache Point Observatory outside Cloudcroft. (Flagstaff, AZ, is proud of its honor as the world's first "international dark skies city" in 2001.)

Credit: Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition

Since 1990, when Alamogordo passed its dark-skies ordinance, new technology (e.g. LED lighting) has rendered it outdated. Also, the folks at nearby Holleman Air Force Base have not seen fit to respect dark skies.

The Amateur Astronomers Group of Alamogordo has a reader-friendly explanation of light pollution and its effects here. (Interestingly, Alamogordo, despite its relatively small population of 30k, has two astronomy clubs. The other is the Alamogordo Astronomy Club.)

New Mexico

With its historic, scientific, and touristic relationship to space, New Mexico has a reputational and financial stake in dark skies.

Chaco Observatory, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Credit: NPS

Travel & Leisure counted New Mexico among the Top 10 Stargazing Spots in the World in 2008, specifically mentioning New Mexico Skies, a private observatory complex near Cloudcroft, in the Sacramento Mountains.  (New Mexico Skies is in the process of creating an astronomers' community, selling 2-acre lots for home-building.)

Whirlpool Galaxy, photo taken at New Mexican Skies. Credit: New Mexico Southern Skies has a series on "dark sky astronomy" travel with a detailed article on New Mexico's dark-sky destinations.

New Mexico's Night Sky Protection Act has been on the books since 1999, but it had no enforcement teeth and it exempted one of the biggest light monsters, athletic fields. In 2009, the legislature tightened the law up and gave it more bite. In the meantime, some communities in New Mexico have created laws more restrictive than the state law to protect "dark skies." 

(Note: Missouri  has no statewide light pollution law.)

International perspective

International Dark Skies is based on Tucson, Arizona. Too bad the videos on its site tend toward the pedantic and preachy. But this one isn't bad, made by the "Dark Ranger:"

I'm very lucky, I think. I can step outside my door in Alamogordo and see quite a few stars. My place is on the very east side of town, up against the Sacramento Mountains, and there are no lights on the mountain faces.


Amateur Astronomers Group said...

Thank you for mentioning us in your article! We continue to support events at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park as well as at the space museum, schools and local libraries.

Mzuri said...

My pleasure. What a sadness to hear that Ranger Charles Wood died. I attended several of his events at the park.