From The New York Times
By JOE SHARKEY
Published: August 30, 2008
ASTRONOMERS and others interested in a night sky unencumbered by the glare from artificial light love to tell this story: When the Northridge earthquake knocked out power in Los Angeles in 1994, numerous calls came into emergency centers and even the Griffith Observatory from people who had poured into the streets in the predawn hours. They had looked into the dark sky to see what some anxiously described as a “giant silvery cloud” over the shaken city.
Not to worry, they were assured. It was merely the Milky Way, the vast galaxy that humans once knew so well — until the glare from electric light effectively erased most traces of it from urban and near-urban skies.
It’s easy to forget, 130 years after outdoor electric lighting first cast its glow through the night, that the sky is actually full of stars. But largely as a result of a remarkable partnership between science and business that took root in Tucson during the 1970s, an idea is gaining acceptance: that darker skies can be achieved with new products and technologies. Darker skies can generate real benefits not only for astronomers, but also for businesses from gas stations and parking lots to Nascar tracks.
Because much of Arizona is mountain-studded desert with only two major urban sprawls, Phoenix and Tucson, the state has long been a center for astronomical research. It has about 30 university and federal observatories, which in turn energize a wide range of educational and for-profit scientific enterprises.
In the late 1950s, during a time of national resolve to take the lead in space exploration, a cluster of federally funded observatories was built atop the 7,000-foot Kitt Peak, 56 miles southwest of here in the Sonoran desert.
But scientists at the Kitt Peak facility, operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, quickly decided that they had to be more than stargazers working nights on a mountaintop. Almost from the beginning, they reached out to form alliances with politicians, lighting engineers and businesspeople who might be persuaded that dark skies could also be a civic asset.
Tucson passed laws restricting light pollution and emerged as the center of the so-called dark-sky movement. It’s the home of the International Dark-Sky Association, which works to raise awareness about light pollution and to promote the design and marketing of outdoor lighting that has a minimal impact on the night skies.
“Its original roots were in protection of dark skies for astronomical purposes, but very early on the Dark-Sky Association began working with industry and designers,” said Christian K. Monrad, who owns an electrical engineering company in Tucson and is president of the association’s board.
Initially, it was not an easy sell. Sure, the stargazers wanted dark skies on their mountaintop, but myriad others balked — including car dealers, city lighting engineers, police officials and owners of hamburger stands, malls and security companies. After all, for many of their purposes, brighter was naturally presumed to be better.
Perceptions changed once industry began developing new fixtures with shields that “put the light on the ground where you want it,” Mr. Monrad said. Businesses and politicians also paid attention when it was demonstrated that blazing lights created unnecessary glare that, in many cases, makes it harder to see clearly.
Police officers were especially quick to get it, Mr. Mondad said. Properly designed, he said, well-focused security lighting provides a “low-glare environment for the visual task, whether it’s a roadway, a sports field or a parking lot.”
The Dark-Sky group estimates that badly designed outdoor lighting wastes $10 billion in energy a year. It issues a seal of approval for a range of lighting products, for uses including home landscaping, sports and recreation fields and shopping mall parking lots. Some Nascar racetracks, Mr. Monrad said, have been especially receptive to better-designed lighting. Reducing glare makes the tracks more popular with neighbors, and professional drivers are quick to recognize the safety benefits.
Musco Lighting, based in Oskaloosa, Iowa, promotes “green generation” lighting designs for arenas, motorways and recreational fields as providing enhanced vision for participants and better lighting for TV broadcasts. It says the new designs are also more energy-efficient and “less obtrusive for neighbors and the environment.”
Even small distributors have signed on. In the 1990s, Anthony Arrigo moved from Long Island to Utah and was transfixed by a night sky full of stars and streaking meteors. A software developer, Mr. Arrigo started a sideline business, Starry Night Lights, that distributes a variety of domestic and commercial lighting products, including sensors to regulate when and where light is required.
With many standard outdoor lights, "50 cents of every dollar in energy costs goes right up into the sky," said Mr. Arrigo, who sells dark-sky friendly fixtures on his Web site, www.starrynightlights.com.
At Kitt Peak, signs posted outside dormitories ask visitors to be quiet because astronomers are “day sleepers.” The director, Buell T. Jannuzi, said scientists welcome the partnership with business: “It’s one of those issues where there is no good reason to waste money and energy. With intelligent planning and design, you put lighting where you need it and don’t put it where you don’t need it — like in the sky.”
Regulations that limit unnecessary ambient light or require outdoor fixtures to be shielded are in effect in at least 30 states, Mr. Monrad said.
The benefits to science are obvious. But the movement has gained momentum because of growing concerns about energy conservation. “It’s turned into a quality-of-life issue and a green issue,” Mr. Monrad said. The next initiative is to draft a national standard for dark-sky-friendly fixtures, displays and other forms of outdoor light, including that for landscape gardening.
And there’s a bigger market as national infrastructure repairs are made, Mr. Monrad said.
“We’re going to see a relighting of America,” he said. “All over the country, aging lighting systems on interstate highways and city streets are reaching their end of life and are ripe for replacement.”