OFTEN WHEN A COMET PASSES or another astronomical marvel unfolds above Seattle, it’s hidden behind a fuzzy shroud—the sky glow of the city’s lights bouncing off its endemic cloud cover. On February 20, the moon was to undergo its last full eclipse for nearly three years, with the bonus of the ringed planet Saturn and the bright star Regulus attending beside it. All day, clouds had rolled across the sky; they were expected to set in after nightfall. Instead the clouds parted and the heavens opened, revealing as clear and deep a sky as I’ve ever seen over this town.
I determined not to waste the chance; I would view this eclipse through the lens of a powerful telescope. This is easy to do in Seattle, even if you don’t own one, thanks to a charming idiosyncrasy of astronomy buffs: The only thing they like more than beholding the wonders of the universe is sharing those wonders with perfect strangers. Here in the city, the Seattle Astronomical Society holds monthly parties on the north shore of Green Lake. The astronomical revelers were not at their usual spot just west of the Bathhouse theater, however, so I wandered along the shore, out onto the grassy peninsula that bulges into the lake’s northwest corner, about as dark a patch of land and water as you can find within the city, and even darker with the moon fully covered by Earth’s shadow.
In this darkness, the eclipsed moon was magnificent, a smoldering orange fading to glowing gray.
Three moon widths away, Saturn and Regulus hung at the nine and twelve o’clock positions. By Seattle standards the sky was profuse with stars. Overhead stretched a diaphanous swath of the Milky Way, the disk-shaped galaxy of 200 billion or so stars in which our Earth lies. By wilderness standards it was a skim-milk version, thin and attenuated, but I still gasped; it was the first time I had ever seen the original Great White Way in Seattle.
On a hunch I headed down to the boathouse at the lake’s southwest corner and found the star party gathered there. The terrain at the Bathhouse site blocked the view of the moon rising, so they’d moved to the boathouse side. But there, two of the tall poles holding the lights that ringed the nearby parking lots—called "cobra heads" because of their arching, hooded shape—were askew, and they shot light at the shore where the stargazers were gathered. The boathouse was decked with small, unshielded bulkhead lights shining in every direction. Outmatched by the boathouse glare, the moon and Saturn and Regulus no longer shone quite so bright. And the Milky Way had disappeared.
Living in cities, we spend our waking days and nights bathed in varying degrees of illumination; even when we sleep, streetlights leak in our windows and the LEDs on our clocks and video players blink and glow. True darkness, like true silence, feels strange, exhilarating, even disconcerting.
Through nearly all of human history, the Milky Way was a nightly presence, in town and country alike. Into the early twentieth century, even residents of Manhattan could see it. Then two events forever altered the night sky: In 1879, Thomas Edison created the first commercially viable incandescent bulb—in effect, invented the electric light. And on March 31, 1880, someone in Wabash, Indiana, flipped a switch, sending power from a threshing-machine-driven dynamo to four powerful carbon arc bulbs mounted on the town’s courthouse dome—and Wabash became the first electrically lit city in the world. "The strange, weird light, exceeded in power only by the sun, rendered the square as light as midday," one witness recounted. "Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement. We contemplated the new wonder of science as lightning brought down from the heavens."
The incandescent age came to Seattle on March 22, 1886, when Edison’s agents fired up a steam-powered generator on Jackson Street, turning on the first electric light west of the Rockies—presumably to a similar breathless reception. Artificial light spread like wildfire, and men ceased falling to their knees at the wonder of it: "Lightning brought down from the heavens" is now as commonplace as plastic and internal combustion, two other legacies of the same era.
In 2001 an Italian astronomer named Pierantonio Cinzano devised an eye-opening "World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness." By his estimation, two-thirds of Americans, half of Europeans, and a fifth of people worldwide can no longer see the Milky Way. One study found that three-quarters of Canadians had never seen it. Nighttime satellite photos tell the tale. A few big swaths of Earth slumber peacefully in darkness: Antarctica and the Arctic, Amazonia and the Australian outback, the Gobi, Kalahari, and Sahara deserts. Vast developed areas—virtually all of Europe and India, for example, and most of the contiguous United States—look uncannily like the Milky Way, flecked with dots and smears of light. The largest metropolises blaze like supernovas. Seattle is a next-tier nova, the biggest, brightest hot spot on the continent west of Alberta and north of San Francisco.
Light from the city spills out over its neighbors, as David Ingram, the genial vice president of the Boeing Employees’ Astronomical Society, discovered when he was invited to conduct a stargazing party at Vashon Island’s Harbor School. "There was no way we could do a star party there," he says. "The sky glow from Seattle was overwhelming. We had to go to Nike Park, on the opposite side of the island, to get a decent sky." Craving such a sky, the Seattle Astronomical Society tried for several years to acquire a 10- to 20-acre "star park" in Central Washington where members could convene, camp, and, most important, see the stars. A secretive sponsor offered to match donations for the purchase with the stipulation that the site be within three hours’ drive of Seattle. Otherwise, notes SAS vice president Greg Scheiderer, some members would gladly "drive to north Saskatchewan for a black sky." At first that restriction seemed to present no problem. "But places that were dark aren’t dark anymore," says Scheiderer. "A lot of folks thought Cle Elum would be good. But there’s more and more development there." Likewise the Ellensburg and Wenatchee areas. This spring the astronomical society gave up trying to find an affordable site near enough and dark enough to serve as a star park. It scuttled the project and refunded donors’ money.
Ask local stargazers where this metropolis’s brightest, most overbearing lights are, and they’ll probably tell you about "Michael’s Nebula." Michael’s Toyota, aka Toyota of Bellevue, is a snazzy auto dealership at the junction of Interstate 90 and 148th Avenue Southeast. Above its well-stocked lot stand scores of high poles stacked with floodlights. They blaze so brightly Dave Ingram claims "you can find it by the sky glow"; you can certainly read the fine print in a car contract there. The Subaru dealership a few hundred feet away is nearly as bright.
Terrence McCosh pays a lot of attention to lights on the Seattle side of Lake Washington. McCosh is a mechanical engineer and amateur astronomer, a lanky sexagenarian with a stubbly white beard, the gravelly basso of an old-time radio announcer, and an impish twinkle in his eye. We arranged to meet at the Museum of Flight, where he’s helping restore a World War II B-29 bomber. Before retiring, he designed dialysis materials and other medical-technology devices. Today he specializes in vintage cockpit systems. His fellow volunteers at the museum were amazed when he revealed that Boeing installed ultraviolet-lit fluorescent dials nearly 70 years ago. McCosh himself once designed a catoptric light (one using a concave reflector to focus a beam), applying what he calls "old, seldom-used technology" to new advantage. He has been fascinated with light since he was six years old, when he would hold his father’s radium-dial military timepiece up to his eye and watch radioactive particles burst from its glowing face. "I haven’t gotten eye cancer," he says with a shrug, "so I guess it’s okay."
McCosh discovered light pollution in 1973, when he bought the West Seattle house where he still lives. The glare from his neighbors’ light-spraying bulkhead-style lights obscured the Puget Sound view and lit his living room: "I could read without turning my lights on." Bit by bit, he persuaded them to lower their lumens, even installed special lights for some of them. But such arrangements last only as long as the neighbors do. One moved out, and the new occupant erected "outrageous" carriage lights shining at McCosh’s house. So he’s back to cajoling and erecting baffles to block the glare.
Anyone who lives on the grid, around other people, probably lives with some degree of light pollution and its twin, light trespass: neighbors’ floodlights, overbearing streetlights, a sudden flash of high—intensity headlights. Ordinarily we take these intrusions for granted, or we try to, just as we once expected to breathe other people’s cigarette smoke in restaurants and other public places.
There’s much more at stake than aesthetic comfort or a view of the stars. Humans and other animals evolved in a cycle of day and night that sets the pace of fundamental metabolic, hormonal, and behavioral rhythms. Breaking that pace may have serious repercussions. Several American and European studies, including one that reviewed the work and life histories of 78,562 nurses, has found that night workers develop breast cancer at higher rates than day workers, and these rates climb with the number of years on the night shift and nights worked per week. One 2001 study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found a 60 percent greater incidence in night-shift workers. Its authors noted an "alarming" accumulation of evidence "for an association between exposure to light at night and breast cancer risk."
The basis for this association appears to lie in the hormone melatonin, which is produced during sleep by the pineal gland and is essential to health (just as vitamin D, which the skin produces in response to daytime sunlight, is—our bodies need both light days and dark nights). Melatonin is best known for regulating circadian rhythms, but it also functions as an antioxidant and suppresses the estrogen estradiol, which is associated with breast cancer. Light striking the retina, even during sleep, can also suppress melatonin—though moonlight, dim night lights, and occasional trips to the bathroom don’t seem to do so.
The melatonin connection may explain two longtime epidemiological mysteries: Breast cancer rates are 20 to 50 percent lower for blind women. And rates in industrialized nations have risen to three to five times those in the nonindustrialized world over the past century—just as electric lighting became pervasive. "If light were a drug," Dr. Charles Czeisler, an author of the nurses’ study, told The Medical Tribune, "I’m not sure the Food and Drug Administration would approve it."
Terrence McCosh waved me into a Renault hatchback piled with papers and gear—something between an office and a base camp on wheels—and pulled out onto East Marginal Way. It was 8pm, and all the establishments along this industrial strip—Boeing hangars, fabricating plants, lunch counters, loading yards—were dead quiet, their windows dark and parking lots empty. But their lights were working overtime, shooting film-noir shadows across stucco and asphalt and bullets of glare onto the roadway. Uncovered bulkhead lights jutted from a Taco Time’s walls, casting a blue-white pall. At the northwest corner of Marginal Way and Spokane Street a floodlight shone straight into traffic, and the glare made even McCosh, who knows the route, squint.
Age has something to do with that. The eye’s iris naturally adjusts to the brightest objects it sees; if it failed to, bright light would blind you, as when you emerge from an eye exam with your pupils dilated. As the years pass our retinas adjust less speedily to changes in light, and glare blindness lasts longer.
The night turned chilly, and McCosh replaced his "B-29 Crew" baseball cap with a peaked wool cap. "I’m a green-eyeshade guy," he explained, -recalling the celluloid visors that came into fashion at the dawn of the electric age; gamblers, editors, and other sedentary workers donned them to shield their eyes from the naked bulbs. McCosh shields his everywhere he goes.
"Men fell on their knees, groans were uttered at the sight, and many were dumb with amazement."
I squinted as well when we came upon the forests of bare bright-white bulbs that blaze, nine to a pole, above the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe rail yards in SoDo, between the Starbucks building and Safeco Field. Strategically lining the lower Highway 99 viaduct, they form a sort of electric portal to the city; Burlington Northern grandly calls them the Seattle International Gateway. Beside the yards, a number of 99’s cobra-head lights were burned out, but the lost illumination was negligible: Highway officials "don’t even need to put streetlights on 99," noted McCosh. The railroad’s lights spill onto the highway and throw more light into drivers’ windshields. "What are they trying to light?" he exclaimed. "There’s no work going on. What do they need to see here?" (Later I called Burlington Northern to ask. "We abide by all city, state, and federal regulations," its spokesman said, a bit defensively but truthfully. And, he added, the railroad would in the future "dim [its lights] when we don’t have operations there." Perhaps then highway officials will have to start replacing theirs.)
Burlington Northern may have the biggest, most conspicuous single light barrage, but it doesn’t top McCosh’s list of light offenders. "The worst are the Seattle Parks Department and the Port of Seattle," he said, his voice tinged with sadness. "The Parks Department doesn’t get it, and the Port doesn’t care."
Or, as the Port sees it, it doesn’t have responsibility. "Terminal lights are generally designed by our [shipping-company] tenants," says a spokesperson. Those companies often use more modern lights than Burlington Northern’s arrays. The lights at Terminal 5, a sprawling storage yard for empty shipping containers, are among the newer, better ones. They’re "full-cutoff" fixtures: capped on top, stopping light from shooting up into the sky, and fully enclosed on their sides, preventing it from spraying around. And they’re installed on a single plane around each matte-black pole, rather than stacked, so they don’t reflect off each other. But their sheer firepower—67 hundred-foot-tall poles by McCosh’s count, each holding 12 powerful bulbs—still casts an eerie pall over the yard’s environs. "Those bulbs are probably 400 watts each," said McCosh. "I calculated that nearly 800 homes could be lit and heated with the energy they use." More than the glare, it’s the waste of such arrays that offends him.
Terminal 5 is just a glimmer in a galaxy of urban light. The Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association, the leading clearinghouse of information on light pollution, estimates conservatively that 15 percent of all artificial outdoor light in the United States is simply shot off into space and 30 percent of all indoor and outdoor lighting is wasted in inefficient, misdirected, or unnecessary fixtures. Using current U.S. Department of Energy statistics, that translates to 800 billion kilowatt-hours of waste. (The average U.S. household uses a little over 10,000 kilowatt-hours a year.) At an average rate of 9.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, that’s $76 billion worth of juice.
McCosh led me to the panoramic view deck the Port has erected atop the Odyssey museum at Pier 66. The harbor vista is splendid by day, but at night brilliant white light disks mounted at kneecap level around the inside parapet create a wall of glare that obstructs the trophy view as surely as a grimy window. The adjacent skybridge to Western Avenue is lined, again at knee level, with low-powered, lidded hemispheres that light pedestrians’ way without shining into their eyes. "We know how to do this right," sighed McCosh. "It’s not hard." He glanced back at the bright disks and muttered, "I’m surprised someone doesn’t spray-paint them." I shot my eyes upward, escaping the glare and, as I’ve found myself doing periodically since that eclipse night beside Green Lake, scanning for a glimpse of the Milky Way. I didn’t see it.
Start gauging the effects of lights on the night sky and you’ll notice them everywhere. Look too long and you may become obsessed, like Terrence McCosh. Still, he is a connoisseur, not an indiscriminate loather, of artificial lighting. In 1999, when the Space Needle’s owners installed a laserlike super spotlight to debut on the millennium eve and shine straight up into space, night-minded Seattleites howled that it would waste energy, pollute the night sky, and menace flying creatures. To McCosh, this was "an example of paranoia." In a city already awash in uncontrolled light, "what was really wrong with that?"
McCosh glories in lights that work, that only shine as much as they need to, where they’re supposed to. He effuses nostalgically over the cheap, round, sealed-beam headlights of yester-year, "a beautiful design" lost in the escalation to brighter, pricier lights. He praises the discreet lighting on Amgen’s Interbay campus and thinks Seattle’s best street lighting is actually in downtown Burien. There, antique—looking globes on short poles, with sophisticated prisms inside to prevent light spray, create an intimate, almost European effect. When Seattle erects similar old-timey lights in Main Streetñstyle districts like Columbia City and Ballard, it still hangs contemporary cobra-head lights on high poles above them, undermining the effect. Burien doesn’t.
More than other environmental advocates, dark-sky defenders risk getting snubbed for making mountains out of minor nuisances. In 1999, Rush Limbaugh characterized them as "environmental wackos" who want to upend civilization and plunge America into darkness. But restoring nighttime darkness isn’t just about delicate sensibilities—or human well-being. Many other animals are even more vulnerable to artificial light than the species that invented it.
Just seven years after Thomas Edison introduced the incandescent bulb, naturalists began finding dead birds scattered, sometimes by the thousand, at the feet of light poles. Lights pull songbirds and seabirds off their migration routes, lure them back to Earth on fledgling flights, and make them crash into poles, skyscrapers, and other structures. The Toronto-based Fatal Light Awareness Program estimates ("conservatively") that 100 million birds fly into North American buildings and towers each year.
Newly hatched sea turtles crawl inland toward streetlights and buildings rather than following the glint on the surf to safety. And bright light can discourage adult turtles from laying eggs. For gulls and other predators that feast on hatchlings, beach lights make the pickings even easier. Many other hunters can also benefit from artificial lighting, as long as their prey lasts. Young salmon eyes take about half an hour to adjust to dramatic light changes. UW researchers Barbara Nightingale and Charles -Simenstad found that predators such as dogfish and sculpins wait in illuminated eddies to pick off dazzled smolts. Human hunters have long used lights to dazzle fish, alligators, rabbits, and other game. Fish farmers and hatchery operators use them to herd their finned flocks.
In lakes and other water bodies, tiny crustaceans, insect larvae, and other zooplankton survive by ascending at night to feed on algae and descending during the day to escape predators. But Wellesley College researchers investigated several small lakes around Boston (similar in many ways to Seattle’s lakes) and found that these critters now stay as much as three meters farther down: They "may have lost the ability to migrate up and down the water column." Such a loss can upset whole ecosystems. The algae now bloom unhindered, suffocating other organisms and causing eutrophication—the fetid, sometimes toxic lake water (think Green Lake and Lake Sammamish) that is the bane of summer swimmers. Crystal Lake, near Boston, where the researchers sampled and I used to swim, is hardly crystalline these days.
Artificial light can create ecological winners as well as losers, at least in the short run. Many tropical lizards and frogs that hunted by day now stalk insects drawn to house lights at night. In Britain toads have been found gathering under streetlights, waiting for insects to drop. Streetlights offer some bats a double advantage; they attract tasty moths and, according to one Swedish study, jam the moths’ defense systems so they can’t hear the bats’ echolocating clicks.
But too much light can overwhelm predators too. Light-wary bat species have declined. One study found that a little extra light helps salamanders hunt, but too much "washes out" their vision. Another found that 5 to 10 percent of West Indian lizards, frogs, and snakes have "benefitted directly" from lighting and other human impacts; more than 50 percent have suffered.
Among the biggest losers in this bright new world are moths and other nocturnal insects that fly around outdoor lights. Often they circle till they drop from exhaustion, missing their brief opportunities to mate, or get snatched by light-stalking predators. Already, the spectacular giant silk moth has disappeared from most cities and suburbs. Once they were as much a fixture of summer skies as the Milky Way.
Not all lights contribute equally to these effects. Different types of bulbs emit light in very different color spectra, and choosing between them entails complex trade-offs. Highly efficient low-pressure sodium lamps, once common in residential streetlights, aren’t used at all now in Seattle. Their emissions are concentrated in a narrow yellow band, very different from broad-spectrum natural light, and so don’t attract moths. Astronomers can easily filter out this yellow light; they persuaded several cities near observatories to switch to low-pressure sodium, but at least one, San Diego, switched back after citizens complained that its sickly yellow pall made it difficult to distinguish colors.
Other lamp types, including the pinkish-white high-pressure sodium bulbs used in Seattle’s streetlights, glow across a wider spectrum, mimicking natural light more closely, for better and worse. Bright-white mercury-vapor and metal—halide lights, which are used for playfields, car lots, and other high-intensity sites, also emit lots of invisible ultraviolet light. It’s useless for illumination but it plays hell with observatory sensors, it can cause severe burns if light covers get broken—and it’s a special lure for insects. I once watched a tornado-like swarm circle a single mercury-vapor or halide light near the McDonald’s by Seattle Center, ignoring all the nearby sodium lights.
The Seattle Parks Department, McCosh’s other prime villain, has its share of overamped arrays spraying light over empty playfields and tennis courts and surrounding neighborhoods. Court lights are supposed to come on only when players hit the switches, then shut off automatically a half-hour or hour later. But on a bone-chilling night in early March, when McCosh and I visited the empty courts across from West Seattle’s Solstice Park Annex, they were lit up like a prison yard. "Count the phantom tennis players," growled McCosh. "They couldn’t see the ball against these lights anyway. Nine times out of 10 when I pass by, those lights are on with no one here."
They were likely lit for one simple reason, Parks Department spokesperson Dewey Potter later told me: "That timer’s probably broken." And it’s not the only one, she added. "These systems are ancient. Most were put in, oh, in the 1960s. They all need to be replaced." When Parks renovates a playfield (typically one per year out of 21 in the system), it tries to upgrade lighting to current full-cutoff standards. But it doesn’t know which kinds of lights (typically high-pressure sodium or metal-halide) many of its far-flung facilities have. When I asked how much juice they consumed, David Broustis, the department’s earnest utility conservation manager, conceded that "we don’t have a good inventory," but said he was trying to get one. He’s since succeeded: Seattle’s parks and playfields consume about 340,000 kilowatt-hours a year, spread across 110 electric bills—usage that Broustis is trying to trim.
Similar uncertainty still prevails at Seattle City Light. "We don’t know how many streetlights we have," said a spokesperson for the utility. "We’re in the process of taking an inventory." It long believed (and its Web site still declares) that it had "more than 100,000" streetlights, but officials have since discovered that figure is way high; their inventory has turned up 83,835—about one for every seven Seattleites. Nor does the utility have a good handle on the types of lenses it has deployed. City standards specify flat-bottomed, full-cutoff lenses for arterials, but on East Marginal Way, California Avenue, Fauntleroy Way, and likely others, these alternate erratically with round-bottomed "sag" lenses that spray light all around.
Even when we sleep, streetlights leak in our windows and the LED’s on our clocks and video players blink and glow.
Such haphazard and sometimes redundant lighting might seem surprising in a utility that’s positioned itself on the leading edge of sustainability. City Light pays consumers to scrap their inefficient older refrigerators. It offers subsidized fluorescent bulbs and weatherization, free energy audits, and the option of buying solar- and wind-generated power. It purchases carbon credits. And it has had the good fortune and foresight to rely on hydro rather than coal power, which supplies half of America’s electricity. These measures have helped City Light become "the country’s first carbon-neutral utility," the star of Mayor Greg Nickels’s Climate Action Plan.
City Light also operates the Lighting Design Lab, an innovative test bed and demonstration facility that helps businesses and lighting designers reduce light pollution and waste. In 2002 it began testing efficient, bulb-saving induction technology in streetlights, and it lately has begun trials of another promising technology, the low-glare, high-efficiency LEDs that are ubiquitous in electronic devices. Broustis says the Parks Department also hopes to test LEDs and induction fluorescent lights this year. And on March 29, the Nickels administration shut off lights in city buildings and urged citizens to do the same at home to commemorate international Earth Hour, an energy-saving event organized by the World Wildlife Fund.
But the City installed lights willy-nilly in past decades, when power was cheap and light pollution just a glimmer on the policy horizon. "We added quite a few streetlights between the Rice and Schell administrations," Edward Smalley, City Light’s streetlight manager, says with dry understatement. In the 1990s, the City undertook a "Saturation Lighting" campaign to install streetlights every 150 feet, replacing a previous 300-foot standard. "This program had limited success," Smalley admits. "We received just as many calls for shielding as we did for more light."
Five hundred miles northeast of Seattle, Calgary, Alberta, used to boast of being "the best-lit city in North America." Its chief manager in the 1980s was an electrical engineer famously fond of bright lights. The result: With 900,000 residents and a population density slightly higher than Seattle’s, Calgary expended more than four times as much electricity per square mile on its streetlights.
By 2002, Calgary had seen the light; it downsized all its streetlights by 100 watts and replaced sag lenses with flat. Calgarians, especially the elderly, feared that would boost crime. When police weighed the results, they concluded that lighting level was not related to violent crime or break-ins, which tend to happen during the day when people aren’t home. Levels of both held steady. The conversion, which cost $7 million, has saved Calgary $2 million a year in electricity. Calgary officials say they’ve received an overwhelmingly positive public response.
Nevertheless, wherever restrictions or reductions in outdoor lighting are proposed, the same safety jitters arise. And whenever people fear crime, they demand more lights. After the stabbing of Shannon Harps on Capitol Hill, neighbors pled for additional streetlights; City Light added one and fixed two that were fading. To discourage drug dealing in already well-illuminated Victor Steinbrueck Park, officials promised more lights. The lighting-related request parks officials receive most often is for lighting along the Green Lake footpath, which, as one official notes, would be "hideously expensive." (It might also mar the serene beauty of Seattle’s favorite stroll and drive off the star parties.) The Parks Department also insists the Green Lake boathouse needs those unshielded wall packs to protect the boats inside it.
But again and again, official studies and other cities’ experience have confirmed what Calgary discovered: More lighting doesn’t necessarily mean more security. In 2003 cash-strapped Des Moines, Iowa, shut off 39 percent of its arterial streetlights. As usual, citizens objected—and crime rates fell slightly. Urban blackouts, from New York in 1965 to Seattle in 2006, tell a similar story: Burglars don’t hit houses they can’t see. In 1977 the U.S. Justice Department found "no statistically significant evidence that street lighting impacts the level of crime," though it does lessen "the fear of crime." In 1997, Justice rendered a more nuanced view: Lighting is sometimes "effective" against crime, other times "ineffective," even "counterproductive," because "offenders need lighting to detect potential targets." Dark shadows cast by overbright lights give cover for attackers, and glare may blind victims.
No lights can mean less vandalism. Several large school districts in Texas and California went "dark campus"—turned off all outdoor lights—and found that vandalism decreased. San Antonio’s security director offered a street-smart explanation: "With vandalism, the thrill is seeing the windows broken, seeing the words written on the wall. It is no thrill to hang around in the dark." Seattle Parks’ David Broustis noticed similar cases when he oversaw conservation at the Seattle Schools: "We were lighting up a wall like a billboard and getting lots of graffiti. So we turned off the lights, and the graffiti stopped."
Findings like these provide ammunition for the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), which lobbies for what it calls common-sense lighting: "Illuminate only what needs to be lit, when it needs to be, using the right amount of lighting"—"glare free" and "well directed," of course. Astronomers, amateur and professional, drive the movement, but they know it will take more than the music of the spheres to persuade light-addicted societies to change their ways. Tourism, the global economic elixir, may help; some resorts and developments tout their stargazing attractions, and the IDA promotes a list of dark-sky destinations. But big cities like Seattle don’t aspire to join that list. Conservationists lend support, but they’re too busy battling habitat loss and other threats to jump in full tilt. And as lepidopterist Kenneth Frank, who conducted pioneering research on how lights affect moths, warns, "Never argue against something on behalf of moths. People will just laugh at you."
Now, however, soaring energy prices, greenhouse gloom, and footprint fervor give the dark siders a trump card. They proffer a win-win-win solution: Save energy and money. Protect ecosystems and human health. And restore wonder to the world.
Start gauging the effects of lights on the night sky and you’ll notice them everywhere. Look too long and you may become obsessed.
Elsewhere, seven states, at least three countries (Slovenia, Chile, and the Czech Republic), and hundreds of municipalities have adopted laws or regulations restricting light trespass and pollution. In Seattle, a local dark-skies campaign mustered in response to the Space Needle’s millennial sky beam and went on to notch a few victories: The new Mountainstar resort near Roslyn agreed to follow tough IDA standards; and Bainbridge Island, which has its own observatory, passed what’s probably the state’s most sky-friendly outdoor-lighting code. Then the campaign succumbed to volunteer burnout, as so many campaigns do. Now it’s reviving under the moniker Dark Skies Northwest and the vigorous leadership of Boeing astronomy buff Dave Ingram. He’s found a timely catchphrase: We should consider our "photon footprints" along with our carbon footprints. "Both reflect the same kind of disciplined thinking," he says.
Usually activists prod the Legislature into action, but in the last legislative session it was the other way around. The unexpected introduction of a light-pollution bill made the dark-skies boosters scramble to catch up. The bill was a personal cause for its sponsor, Representative Patricia Lantz of Gig Harbor. For 40 years, Lantz recounts, she looked across Carr Inlet, where she lives, and watched "more and more light trespass on the night skyÖ. I decided long ago I would work for a law prohibiting it." The time seemed ripe for three reasons: "We have the technology to solve the problem, we need to not waste energy, and we have a tremendous influx of people in Western Washington," which means more lights and more sky glow.
Also, Lantz is retiring from the Legislature, so this was her last shot. A phalanx of Big Light interests turned out in Olympia to testify against it, some on reasonable grounds. The Mariners and Qwest Field’s operators complained that it would bar them from lighting to league standards and cleaning the fields after games. The outdoor-advertising giant Clear Channel contended that the bill would, in the words of company spokesperson Olivia Voight, "prevent us from carrying on our business." It dictated that outdoor signs be lit only from above, but Clear Channel lights from below and runs its designs to the tops of its billboards. The state Department of Transportation feared having to "replace $5 million worth of lighting" mounted on the bottoms and sides of highway signs. Local ports and electric utilities added their objections. Lantz’s bill was tabled in committee.
No problem, she says: "This is a really complicated issue. I knew we’d only get started on it this year." Lantz vows to lay the groundwork for another bill next year, and expects colleagues still in Olympia to pick up the torch. Ingram and his fellow astronomer-activists are trying to meet with the agencies and businesses that objected to the old bill to work out provisions that would protect both their needs and the night sky. So far, however, those agencies and businesses haven’t flocked to the table.
And so the very earthly business of policy-shopping, legislative parrying, and deal making grinds away beneath the urban sky glow. Meanwhile, somewhere above Seattle, hidden by the glow but not yet entirely forgotten, the Milky Way still twinkles.