Monthly Archives: April 2013

Our Fragile Island Home – Earth Day 2013

I’ve always been a conservationist and an eco-minded person since my days in Boy Scouts.  We learned that nature is should be respected and cared for and as much as possible we should live in harmony with our surroundings.  However, when you’re able to see pictures of the Earth from space your whole perspective changes.  I’m sure most people are familiar with the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968.  “Earthrise” gave a whole new perspective of our home planet and gave realization to the fact that our planet is just a fragile little island floating in an unimaginably huge universe.  Imagine being in the position of Anders or any of the Apollo astronauts as they saw the Earth rise over the lunar surface and realized that everything they’ve ever experienced, everyone they’ve ever known, all their prior life was 250,000 miles away on that small blue rock.

Apollo 8 "Earthrise" photo taken December 24, 1968

Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photo taken December 24, 1968

Few people have had the privilege to see the Earth from space, whether from low orbit or during a lunar mission but we’ve been able to vicariously experience it through the photos and films they’ve brought back that  have left us stunned.  One such striking video was recently compiled by NASA’s MESSENGER probe as it left the Earth on its way to Mercury.  The probe had a camera pointed back towards the Earth as it left it behind and the stitched together frames produced in image of stunning beauty and inspiration.  As the Earth slowly fades away into the blackness of space we realize our true place in the universe.  We are but minnows swimming in a vast, vast ocean.  

Even with the potential of planetary travel and colonization in the distant future we must still place immeasurable value on our home planet.  The Earth has been so good to us for millions of years and will continue to do such if we take proper care of it.  As a whole, the human race is awakening from a slumber of environmental torment.  From the mid-to-late 1800’s and the dawn of industrialism we have polluted the planet to a sickening degree.  We’ve deforested much of the rain forests and polluted the water we drink and the air we breathe.  For over a century we were largely oblivious to the damage we were doing to our fragile environment.  But now we’re waking up to the consequences of our actions.  It is not too late to reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet because she is a resilient creature.  But that should not give us a license to continue to damage her and squander the beauty and riches of our island home.

Even if we travel to hundreds of planets in the future we may never find one quite like Earth (if we find any like it at all).  We were placed here on Earth by divine decree and it is that same decree that should guide our actions going forward to restore and protect our pale blue dot, our fragile island home because it’s all we have.

 

International Dark Sky Week

Spring is finally in full swing and if you’re like me observing season is about to kick off again.  I hate observing in the cold so when April rolls around it’s usually an indicator that better nights are coming…unless you live on the East Coast where it’s been unseasonably cold and cloudy for the last month.  April is also exciting because it is Global Astronomy Month.  Each year since 2009 Astronomer Without Borders has designated April as Global Astronomy Month to raise awareness for the study of astronomy both professionally and amateur.  In my opinion, the biggest part of GAM is International Dark Sky Week.  Beginning tomorrow April 5 and continuing through April 11, Astronomers Without Borders and the International Dark Sky Association are teaming up to raise awareness of the issue of light pollution.  If you’ve read this blog before you’re probably familiar with the light pollution as I write about it quite frequently.

Because of light pollution, the artificial brightening of the night sky, less than a third of Earth’s population lives under natural, starry skies.  Fifty percent of Americans and 75% of Europeans have to travel at least an hour from their homes to see a natural star-filled sky unaffected by light pollution.  From my home in Maryland I have to travel 4.5 hours to reach the only truly dark sky spot around, Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania.    I am willing to make this pilgrimage once or twice a year but there should be somewhere closer to observe from that has a quality dark sky.  The reality is, however, that these places are slowly dwindling in number.  Artificial light, the scourge of the night sky, is slowly but surely conquering the beauty of the natural night sky.

Light pollution comes from poorly designed artificial light sources we use at night.  Most of these light sources are from street lights that are unshielded so that light escapes upwards into the air which causes the light particles to scatter and create that familiar sky glow effect.  Other problems are that we often use wattage that is too high for the task we’re trying to accomplish.  If you’re using too bright of a light the light actually reflects off the ground and bounces back up into the sky to contribute to the sky glow.

NYC sky glow creates an ugly orange blanket over the city

NYC sky glow creates an ugly orange blanket over the city

You’ve also probably noticed the annoying glare that unshielded lights cause while driving.  Glare comes from the bright ball of light generated by a typical drop lens or acorn style street light.  See the example below for a typical “glare bomb”.  The glare created by these lights can not only be annoying while driving, they can also be dangerous for people with poorer eyesight such as seniors or people with sight disorders.  They are also so bright that they can mask important things like road signs and signals along with pedestrians and animals in the road.

Example of "glare bomb" acorn lights  Source: Creation Photography

Example of “glare bomb” acorn lights Source: Creation Photography

Light trespass is also an result of poor lighting design.  Light trespass occurs when a light from a neighbor or nearby building shines, or trespasses, on your property.  For example, a stray light that shines into your bedroom at night that causes you to get inadequate sleep.  To make a long story short, the lighting used should fit the requirements of the task it is trying to accomplish, no more, no less.  We all agree that artificial light helps our society.  But since when did extravagant over illumination become acceptable.  Not only does light pollution affect the night sky, it is also a HUGE money waster!  Every year over-illumination in the United States alone costs the same as approximately 2 billion barrels of petroleum and consumes unnecessary fossil fuels that are not replenish-able.  Imagine how the cost of a gallon of gas could decrease if we didn’t over-illuminate our homes, businesses, and roads!

Fortunately, the solution for light pollution is relatively simple.  Taking the time to assess your lighting needs and using the proper wattage and shielded fixtures will go a long way in reducing the amount of artificial light we send up into the night sky.  Using shielded fixtures ensures that the light only goes where it is needed:  the ground.  This also allows for a lower watt bulb to be used and that in turn reduces the amount of light reflected back off the ground.  Motion sensor are also useful to turn the light on only when there is movement.

Examples of various fixture designs  Source:  IDA

Examples of various fixture designs Source: IDA

Talking to neighbors about their lighting in a polite but concerned way is a great way to introduce the topic to them.  Writing to legislators can be effective as well.  There have been a number of municipalities that have incorporated lighting regulations into state, county, or local code in recent years.  There is a bill in Maryland that is currently in the General Assembly that would require all new light fixtures purchased by state agencies to be fully shielded.  The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is simply making people aware that there is a problem.  Many people don’t even think about the light they see at night or how their lights are contributing to the pinkish glow we know all too well.  In order to reverse the effects of light pollution we must use word of mouth to let people know that light pollution is real and it is diminishing the beauty of our night sky and wasting money in the process.

If you’d like to learn more about the issue of light pollution please read some of the other posts I’ve written on this blog and visit the International Dark Sky Association’s website www.darksky.org.  Together we can put a cap on light pollution and restore the beauty of a star-filled sky!

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