For 10 years, the National Park Service has been measuring light pollution, how bright lights obscure views of the heavens. They've been educating park visitors and local communities in southern Utah about the benefits of preserving natural darkness.
Entering into Bryce Canyon National Park late at night, you can stand at a precipice, the edge of a cliff near sunset point, overlooking the hoodoos, those mysterious red rock formations below. Looking up you can see a myriad of stars, constellations, and other celestial feature in the sky. This is one corner of the dark triangle.
"So we have Zion on the western boundary, we have Moab and the parks that surround Moab, Arches and Canyon Lands on the Eastern boundary, and on the Southern boundary we have the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff. This triangle is the dark triangle," says Chad Moore. He manages a night sky team for the National Park Service. The dark triangle is a portal through which human beings can still see the universe with the naked eye. According to NASA, because of increased nighttime lighting from urban sprawl roughly two-thirds of people worldwide can no longer see the Milk Way, that is, in case you forgot, the center of the galaxy where we all live in the universe.
"This is an area that is one of the darkest areas in the country. It is fairly cloud free and it has very clear air, very little air pollution. These three factors make it the perfect place to see the stars," says Moore. Since 1999, Moore and his night sky team have been scientifically measuring the night sky and the growing light pollution encroaching on national parks all over the US, using GPS devices and special research cameras. "We take these cameras, one or two of us will go out into the field and we'll spend maybe a week at a park waiting for the clear night. And when it's clear we'll hike to the top of a mountain top and set up a tripod and run it over night and then hike down at typically at three or four in the morning."
Moore says while his team started off looking for the darkest parks, recently they're studying parks closer to urban areas in the country, like Fire Island near New York City. “Not because they have fantastic night skies, but still those are places where people go to see the night sky,” says Moore.
For the National Park Service, the idea of preserving darkness is something relatively new. “From an ecological standpoint we can say that we've been wrong in accessing a classic understanding of what a species needs in terms of a quality habitat," says Kevin Poe, one of Bryce Canyon's dark rangers. He says disruption of the circadian rhythm, that is the cycle of darkness and light that all life evolve with for thousands of years, can be harmful to park ecosystems. "Most mammals are actually nocturnal creatures. Yes, you see deer, elk, bear in the daytime, but their highest rate of activity occurs after hours, at night. And so the National Park Service is beginning to look at this in terms of everything we have already done as part of our mission, providing protection for key species and ecologic integrity, and biodiversity sort of things in terms of this new consideration that until recently has been overlooked."
What’s more, a growing number of health studies suggest too much artificial lighting can me harmful for humans as well. Numerous studies are linking artificial lighting to breast cancer and confirming the importance of a dark environment while sleeping, so that our bodies can produce melatonin a natural chemical that works with the body’s immune system. For these reasons, Kevin Poe, routinely encourages visitors to sleep in a dark room at night, and to appreciate darkness. “You know it’s not just about Chad and my nerdy little hobby, astronomy our scientific research, it’s not just about the protection of habitat for all of the animals we love, it comes right down to us as human beings the quality of our life and our health.”
The park service has been working with small Utah towns outside parks over the last several years, encouraging them to use their lighting carefully. Towns like Apple Valley, Ruby’s Inn, and Springdale outside of Zion, already maintain lighting ordinances. Here’s Chad Moore, “It usually starts with some level of pride about dark skies. That, ‘Hey you know, we can still see the Milky Way in our small town. Why ruin it and become like a city, lets keep that small town character, lets be able to keep this aspect of the heritage of the pioneers who came here over a hundred years ago.’ So that’s the impetus for the change.”
While Moore says there’s room for improvement in many of the parks themselves, as with lights for campground restrooms and other aging fixtures. He says it’s not simply about buffer zones for parks. “From Yovimpa Point in Bryce Canyon on a dark clear night, you can see Las Vegas. The effect of cities is up to 300 miles. Now it’s just a tiny blip on the horizon at that point, but it just demonstrates how far light pollution can impact the park."
That’s why Moore, representing the National Park Service, and other night sky advocates gave an informational briefing to staff members of the US House and Senate in July of 2009. “What we’re looking at is sort of a holistic way of thinking about lighting throughout the country.”
With park stargazing programs popular and the state office of tourism now boosting Utah as a great place for astro-tourism, these park officials say with few places remaining on the planet with pristine darkness, Utah’s National Parks in the dark triangle have become a commodity and darkness one more natural resource that should be protected.
This story originally aired 12/9/09