by Rex Parker, Director
Open space, dark skies, and the stars. According to a recent study of satellite-based luminance measurements across the globe (Falchi et al., Sci Adv 2016, The new world atlas of artificial night sky brightness), more than 80% of the world and 99% of the U.S. and EU live under light-polluted skies. The Milky Way is hidden from more than a third of humanity and 80% of North Americans. Light pollution is a painful reminder of the unintended consequences of modern civilization. What, if anything, can we do about this?
The quantitative physics of skyglow indicate that it arises from both regional and local causes combined. Reducing and mitigating the local sources of light pollution therefore has a beneficial impact on perceived skyglow over any given community. Despite overdevelopment, New Jersey has a large number of “land trusts” dedicated to acquiring remaining undeveloped parcels and keeping them as natural as possible. Land preservation saves habitat, promotes biodiversity, and assists the growing public perception that natural areas are essential to the future vitality of our community and state. A strong case can be made that local land preservation is the most effective way currently available to conserve what’s left of our view of the night sky.
At a recent meeting of Montgomery Friends of Open Space (MFOS) in Belle Mead, I gave a presentation on amateur astronomy and the relation of dark skies to land preservation. A clear dark night sky has profoundly redemptive qualities while excessively lit nightscapes are disorienting to the circadian rhythm of wild animals, insects, and plants. Life on earth evolved a strong physiologic dependence on the daily light–dark cycle of the sun as the centerpiece. In botany it is well known that the biochemically essential dark reactions of photosynthesis are inhibited during the light phase. Recent reports in the ecology literature describe the adverse effects of outdoor lighting on plants (e.g., Bennie et al., J Ecology 2016, Ecological effects of artificial light at night on wild plants). The behavior and ecology of herbivores and pollinators are similarly disaffected by unnatural light at night. For humans, the daily cycle of sleeping, waking, hunger, activity levels, body temperature, and melatonin concentration in the blood, provide deeply ingrained biological reminders of our synchrony with the natural light-dark cycle.
Choosing to be hopeful, one can see increasing awareness of the problem of light pollution. Government responses such as improving local outdoor lighting ordinances are steps in the right direction. In fact both Montgomery and Hopewell townships have lighting ordinances in place, and Hopewell is updating its code to require warmer color-temperature LEDs to reduce skyglow. Supporting local land trusts financially and socially is one of the most effective choices we can make, along with becoming more informed about the issue. But the bigger picture remains a challenge for the next generation of concerned citizens to drive policy towards a major reconception and “do-over” of outdoor lighting.
AAAP membership in UACNJ renewed for 2019. Take advantage of our renewal of status as an affiliate of the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey. This includes access for our members to the observatory at Jenny Jump State Forest, a darker sky site in northern NJ. For more information, see the website http://www.uacnj.org/
Act now! – only 3 months remain on our Skynet contract! As described in my article in Sidereal Times, June 2017 (https://princetonastronomy.wordpress.com/2017/06/03/from-the-director-64/), AAAP members now have the remarkable privilege to access Skynet – a state of the art robotic telescope system created by the Univ of North Carolina Chapel Hill Astronomy Dept (https://skynet.unc.edu/). Our contract with UNC expires this June. During the current phase, we are assessing the interest among membership with an eye to future continuation of this project. If you have not yet taken advantage of this perquisite of AAAP membership, and you would like to begin doing astrophotography using Skynet observatories around the planet, first review the Sidereal Times article, and then send me an e-mail indicating your interest in an account with Skynet.