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ARCHIVE: Let there be (less) light

The spread of population and its illumination threaten to make dark sky a rarity. Unlike most environmental ills, this is easy to fix.

DARK SKY, Cherry Springs, Pa.: With no light pollution, even the summer Milky Way is in plain sight. . . . .
DARK SKY, Cherry Springs, Pa.: With no light pollution, even the summer Milky Way is in plain sight. . . . .Read moreJERRY LODRIGUSS /

This story was originally published on October 22, 2007.

Not long after the new Schuylkill Elementary School opened last fall, residents gave it a disparaging nickname: the Schuylkill Airport.

It was the lights.

The playground was aglow at midnight. Light from the school near Phoenixville shone onto neighboring properties, through bedroom windows.

Light pollution - the glare of civilization that makes it hard to see the full blanket of stars at night - has long been an environmental issue, but mostly among stargazers, who contend the dark sky is one of the world's fastest-disappearing natural resources.

Try as they might to enlist support, they were often dismissed - except in places such as Arizona, home to a major observatory.

Now, however, a confluence of concerns is ratcheting awareness up. And getting lights turned down.

Public-safety advocates are going after "glare bombs" that blind drivers.

In defense of rural tranquillity, people are taking issue with the "light pillars" shooting skyward from malls and cities. (Is that a fire, or just Philadelphia?)

And woe to the developer who wants to install streetlights that bleed light skyward or into windows - "pollution on a stick."

Across the country, states and municipalities are enacting measures to limit light pollution, defined as "excess or misdirected light."

Advocates in Eatontown, in North Jersey, which passed its lighting ordinance in 1993, now give unofficial lighting tours to show off how dimmer can be better.

About 31 municipalities in southeastern Pennsylvania alone have passed ordinances in the decade since Montgomery County's Karl Krasley, a backyard astronomer since boyhood, formed the Pennsylvania Outdoor Lighting Council.

Along the way, efforts to curb rampaging photons have attracted some unusual dance partners, from wildlife experts who say excess light disorients migrating birds and sea turtle hatchlings to medical experts concerned about the effect of bright night light on human health.

Lately, dark-sky advocates may have found their best ally yet: energy conservation.

Saying that about 30 percent of lighting is wasted - it is "ill-conceived, ineffective or inefficient," they say - the International Dark-Sky Association, based in Tucson, Ariz., estimates the annual toll is as high as $10 billion.

Not to mention increased air pollution and global warming from burning fossil fuels.

"People are starting to realize everything is connected to everything else," says Dennis Ward, of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. He recently coordinated a citizen science effort, the Great World Wide Star Count, to chart light pollution.

In two weeks, he got more than 4,000 observations from 61 countries. He hopes the results will raise awareness and eventually illuminate trends.

Unlike most environmental ills, light pollution is easy to fix - turn it off, turn it down, or shield it from your neighbors. And the heavens.

"The remarkable thing about this problem is that so much of it could be eliminated just by technology that exists and by practices that make good sense," says Fred Schaaf, an astronomy author who teaches at Rowan University.

Schaaf, like other astronomers, has watched the night sky brighten with accelerating speed. Area groups have been chased ever farther from metropolitan centers.

Although South Jersey groups can still see our nearest neighbor galaxy, Andromeda, from their skywatching posts deep in the Pine Barrens, Franklin Institute chief astronomer Derrick Pitts can hardly pick it out with his telescope.

The Dark-Sky Association cites a 2001 study estimating 80 percent of Americans rarely see a sky darker than one lit by a full moon.

In the darkest spots - such as Cherry Springs Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania's first "dark sky park" - as many as 14,000 stars are visible. In most cities, you can hardly pick out 150.

Ultimately, our new world of day and partial day may be as much a loss for humanity as for science.

The bejeweled sky has inspired humans to create myths, write poems, compose sonatas, ponder the existence of God, and fall in love.

All of which are unlikely to happen in the glare of a car dealership or gas station.

While a fast-food restaurant needs to be lit only to an average of 2.5 foot-candles - the brightness of a candle from 2.5 feet away - most are lit to 20 foot-candles. Except in Eatontown, which has mandated the lower limit.

The pump islands of its gas stations can be brighter - 20 foot-candles - but not the 150 foot-candles that most are.

When a new Lowe's was built, plans called for 400-watt "wall packs" around the perimeter of the building - "a totally shielded blob of light," said John Batinsey, a member of the environmental commission.

The Lowe's wound up with 175-watt shielded lights, using 30 percent less energy.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states have laws meant, at least in part, to curb light pollution.

In 2001, Pennsylvania proposed legislation to regulate lighting at state facilities, but the measure failed.

In response to increased inquiries from municipalities, the Dark-Sky Association and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America are drafting a model ordinance.

Perhaps they need look no further than the one devised by the Pennsylvania Outdoor Lighting Council. It requires light shields, restricts the height of recreational lights, and even bans flag-lighting after 11 p.m., except for the state and U.S. flags.

A lighting council member is starting to take area readings of sky brightness - instruments that are the visual equivalents of decibel meters exist - hoping to discern some trends and see if ordinances are making a difference.

"I think we are [making a difference]," says council president Stan Stubbe. "But the problem is, there's a lot of bad lighting out there from before. We're trying to prevent bad lighting before it happens."

Many municipalities with ordinances are like Chester County's Wallace Township, which is "desperately trying to uphold and maintain the rural character" in the face of rapid development, says Mark Eschbacher, a member of the environmental advisory council. Its newest subdivision will have no streetlights.

Pennsylvania Outdoor Lighting Council founder Krasley lives in Limerick, where for years the lights of a nearby bowling alley shining into his windows were so bright he could read by them.

That changed after Limerick passed its ordinance. Krasley can now see the Little Dipper, and the bowling alley "looks like a nice business. So it works. If you stop light pollution, it's not a losing situation for anybody."

Like Wallace, Schuylkill Township was a rural enclave of farms north of Valley Forge Park, until developers discovered it. Its lighting ordinance was passed last month - well after the elementary school wired a timer to shut off half its lights after 11 p.m.

Environmental advisory council member Andrew Kreider said officials homed in on safety and quality of life. But the eco-angle resonated, too. "For us, it was really just common sense . . . It's sort of a win-win-win."

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or