Lowering the Lights Illuminating the effort to expose the heavens to urban dwellers

NASA Earth Observatory image of Monterey Bay (above) by Robert Simmon
Chapters photo by skyglowproject.com

By Kathryn McKenzie

Poet Dylan Thomas famously urged humanity to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Even now, people are so emotionally attached to light that a truly dark night is associated with disaster. Darkness these days leads to panic.

But a stalwart group in Santa Cruz has an opposite philosophy; they see darkness as a good thing. 

The local chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association might seem to be taking up a quixotic cause — after all, artificial light is now accepted as a nighttime norm. But this group, which includes astronomers, nature lovers and wildlife advocates, is on a mission to remind us of what we’re losing when we light the night.

Andy Kreyche, the moderator of a recent gathering of Dark-Sky devotees in Santa Cruz, revealed that only about 10 percent of Americans have ever seen the Milky Way. The home galaxy once spurred the imagination to myth and wonder. Nowadays, people can’t even see it.

And the problem is steadily getting worse.

“We are not seeing the same night skies as we did as when we were kids,” said Kreyche, a former Hartnell College planetarium director. The primary culprits are brighter LED bulbs and multi-directional fixtures that bleed light everywhere. And it doesn’t help that humans continue to spread themselves all over the planet. After the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, in the Los Angeles area, 911 operators were flooded with calls from Southern Californians who had never seen a truly dark sky before, said Harun Mehmedinovic, another speaker at the Santa Cruz conference. “‘There’s weird stuff in the sky!’”

Mehmedinovic and his partner, Gavin Heffernan, founded the Skyglow Project in collaboration with the International Dark-Sky Association. The two are cinematographers and professional photographers who specialize in stunning visuals of the night sky. They are finding that there is a shrinking range of geography from which to shoot. The Skyglow Project is an effort to show the public how light pollution is erasing what should be humanity’s natural connection to the night skies.

The Good, The Bad & The Dimly Lit

The audience of about 100 packed the seats at the first-time conference, co-hosted by UC Santa Cruz and IDA, which is what the International Dark-Sky Association is known as by those in the know. The conference featured experts who honed deep into the different aspects of light pollution, including the impact all this night light has on wildlife and human health.

Since the days of paraffin wax and whale oil, the light at night was considered a sign of progress. Lighting allows readers to enjoy books at night, keeps drivers from running off the roads and illuminates the ballplayers in Wrigley Field.

But like a lot of human achievement, artificial light is a mixed bag when it comes to its effects. Seeing at night is a good thing, but the downside, apart from making it harder to see the stars, is that artificial light affects circadian rhythms, those internal hardwired clocks that regulate human and animal biology.

That circadian disruptions can lead to a whole host of health problems, affecting everything from excess weight gain to cancer risk in humans. Lack of sleep, also linked to artificial light use, is in itself a severe health hazard, since sleep deprivation causes auto accidents and other mishaps.

The effects on wildlife are no less dire. Fireflies lured by nighttime lighting are no longer reproducing in the numbers they once did, leading to a severe reduction in their populations. Artificial light has also found to interfere with salmon spawning, frog mating, bird navigation and migration. Artificial lights lure newly hatched sea turtles away from oceans and to their deaths, experts say.

Light is a powerful force, and living beings have evolved to react to it in very specific ways over billions of years. Monkeying with the rhythm of light and dark is more harmful than anyone knew.

The International Dark-Sky Association, formed in 1988, started out advocating on behalf of astronomers who need dark skies to peer deeper into the abyss. It has since woven together strands of biological science to make its case for lowering the lights.

IDA members say they aren’t advocating for the abolition of night lights. But they believe there are smarter ways of using them. They say light pollution can be abated considerably with the use of lower-intensity amber lights, and by shielding lamps so the light is angled downward.

One huge issue, Kreyche said, is the color temperature of lights that are being installed. Cities are happily installing super-energy-efficient LED lights, which save massive amounts of money in electricity costs, but there’s a lack of understanding about how intense LED lights can be. Many LEDs being installed in cities emit a type of bright blue light, which have been associated with health risks and wildlife disruption.

Some neighbors are starting to take notice — and reacting. In late 2016, for instance, the city of Monterey lost a lawsuit when Superior Court Judge Lydia Villarreal ruled that the city violated state environmental quality act provisions when it started to install energy-efficient LED streetlights in 2009.

The suit was brought against the city by a group of residents called Turn Down The Lights. They asserted that the lights were significantly brighter than the ones they replaced, and that the city had failed to conduct an environmental review before making the change.

The Glare. Oh, the Glare!

The IDA would like cities to use lower-intensity amber-colored lights, which are softer, produce less glare, and not as apt to bleed into the night sky — a hard sell, because of the yellowish light they emit and because cities have already spent the money on those other LED bulbs.

Design of the light fixtures also matters. “The design of most newer street lights (especially now that many utilize LED technology) are such that they are ‘full cutoff,’ meaning they are pointed down and no light shines past the horizontal plane into the sky,” Kreyche wrote during a recent email exchange. “But on the unintended consequences side, since LEDs are cheaper to operate, sometimes replacements are intrinsically brighter. And they can easily bleed into unintended areas, causing what’s known as ‘light trespass.’

“When an area is overlit or there is a lot of glare, due to extreme contrast between lighted and unlit areas, it’s harder to make out anything potentially unsafe outside the illuminated areas. This is compounded by the fact that because LEDs are a point source of light, they cause more glare than other sources. The solution is to have fixtures that are recessed or shielded on the sides.”

IDA member Lisa Heschong of Santa Cruz also knows the issues well. She had been an advocate for natural lighting as a young architect back in the mid-1970s. Daylighting, as it’s called, is actually an old idea that had become new again, she said: “No one took electricity for granted in the early years,” or at least prior to World War II.

But the idea of using natural light in buildings through windows, portals and skylights “eroded away in the 1950s and ‘60s, and we generationally forgot about it,” she said.

Heschong, a licensed architect who worked with the building energy efficiency industry for decades, also worked on lighting standards that were adopted by the state of California in the early 2000s. After she retired and moved to Santa Cruz several years ago, she found that she had passion and a wealth of knowledge to get the message out to a larger audience.

After joining the local IDA group, she came up with the idea for Earth Night and successfully sought support from UCSC. Earth Night is part of the group’s efforts to raise awareness on the detrimental aspects of light pollution and to let people know that there are ways to combat it.

Earth Night brought together scientists from a variety of disciplines to talk about the multiple problems with light at night, such as UCSC associate professor Carrie Partch, who spoke on light and circadian rhythms, and James Fischer, director of the Zoological Lighting Institute, together with Medmehinovic, Kreyche and Lick Observatory astrophysicist Puragra (Raja) Guha Thakurta.

Winning the Circadian War

The Santa Cruz affiliate of IDA has mostly been focused on the city of Santa Cruz so far, but they do plan to expand their reach to the rest of the Monterey Bay area. And so far, Santa Cruz has been receptive to the idea of changing its lighting to IDA recommendations. Kreyche said that group members have been coordinating with the city’s public works department to test lighting modifications on the Soquel Avenue bridge over the San Lorenzo River.

What they’re looking for is to shield lights so that the light doesn’t make its way into the river environment, which could affect wildlife there, and to also dim or shield lights to cut down on glare for drivers.

It seems like a daunting task to try to deal with all the cities, counties, and other entities around the Monterey Bay area. And yet IDA members in Santa Cruz are persisting, inspired by examples of other cities that have been persuaded to lower the lights.

There are about 20 International Dark Sky Communities, as they’re known. The first one was Flagstaff, Ariz., with the effort spearheaded by astronomers from Lowell and the U.S. Naval observatories, who saw their viewing opportunities disappear as the city grew. Now the use of amber lights and appropriate shielding make the city a stargazer’s destination.

There are also Dark Sky Parks and Dark Sky Reserves, mostly in isolated places well away from city lights, such as Death Valley and Anza-Borrego State Park. Dark skies can actually be a tourist draw, said Jeff Parry, the manager of Pigeon Point Lighthouse Hostel in Pescadero, just up the coast from Santa Cruz. The hostel is promoting its dark-sky-friendly lighting so visitors can get optimal views of the night sky.

The problem in populated areas is convincing cities and communities that the lights need to be changed. Paying for different lighting and light fixtures is one issue; the other is safety.

Santa Cruz Planning Commissioner Pete Kennedy said that the safety issue is particularly sensitive there because of concerns about crime in the city. But what he has discovered, after hashing out the issues with IDA members, is that more light is not necessarily better light.

“You might have a bright light, but it’s concealing a dark spot next to it,” he said. And harsh glare also prevents people from seeing properly at night, and it’s especially problematic for seniors whose eyes adjust more slowly to light intensity.

“What’s great is that it’s all baked into the state energy codes,” said Kennedy, and city officials can borrow and adopt pre-made ordinances to curb excessive lighting.

IDA members in Santa Cruz are also working to get local ordinances and building codes to support dark-sky-friendly lighting, and to provide information for people to address issues of light trespass with neighbors, municipalities, or PG&E.

The group is also doing its own documentation, last year taking photos from a private plane at night to use as as a baseline going forward, “hopefully showing improvement from our efforts,” said Kreyche.

Raising awareness about the impacts of too much light is IDA-SC’s mission, and one that Heschong is passionate about.

“We love our beautiful setting and our parks so much … we want to help protect them from light pollution,” she said. “There’s a lot of work ahead.”

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).