Monday, January 07, 2008

Darkness Continued

Remember the New Yorker article about Darkness? Basically, we are blotting out all of the stars, and darkness, through inattention and carelessness to our lighting structures and usages here. This came up for me again during the month of December where every town and building was strung up with vast amounts of Christmas lights. Some still are. I'm sure there is some reason we do this, but I haven't quite figured it out, as it seems like a enormous waste of energy and a great way to forget that there is a natural world out there.

Anyway, I stumbled across this article the other day in the Sacramento Bee: Truckee is seeking to limit its outdoor lighting in order to preserve the darkness and stars.

Truckee fears its star power is in peril
Planners may toughen outdoor lighting rules to preserve night-sky view.

By Todd Milbourn -

Last Updated 5:59 am PST Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

TRUCKEE – For years car bumper stickers and license plate frames traveling roads along the north shore of Lake Tahoe have trumpeted this mountain town's motto: "The stars shine brighter in Truckee."

The local tourism board may want to update its promotional materials.

Today those stars – and the planets, comets and the Milky Way – are dimming in the night sky, clouded by a glow from the area's expanding constellation of shopping centers, streetlights and billboards.

"Used to be, when you went outside the sky would be so beautiful you couldn't help but look at it," said Sharon Pruitt, a Sierra College astronomy professor who has gazed at the heavens from Truckee for 17 years. "Now you don't notice the night sky at all."

Light pollution is an emerging political issue in Truckee, an old Sierra Nevada logging town-turned-resort community whose unspoiled setting has been the source of its cachet.

Town planners are researching restrictions on the use of outdoor lighting, exploring the use of shields and lower-intensity bulbs, and keeping lights closer to the ground. Truckee already has rules on outdoor lighting but will consider a tougher ordinance this year.

"The night sky here in Truckee still is pretty spectacular," said John McLaughlin, Truckee's community development director and a supporter of a new ordinance. "We want to keep it that way."

In doing so, Truckee would join a growing list of towns and cities cracking down on light pollution. Flagstaff and Tucson, Ariz., as well as Davis all have stringent light ordinances on the books. Even sparkly Los Angeles has shown interest, asking residents to shut off non-essential lights earlier this year, if only for an hour.

Anyone who's ever flown in an airplane at night can envision the problem, said Eric Larusson, a former Truckee planner who is pushing the issue. The same yellow glow that makes cities visible from a plane makes stars invisible from the ground. Light intended for a parking lot or a sidewalk is instead shooting off in every direction, ruining the contrast that makes many stars visible.

"When I look down and see all these lights are shining up at me, I realize what a waste," Larusson said, recalling a recent night flight over Truckee. "It's all just wasted energy."

The most offensive lights are often installed in the name of security, McLaughlin said. Businesses figure the more intensely their store or parking lot is lit, the less crime it will attract. So they attach massive high-pressure sodium lamps, even though much of that light misses its target and diffuses into the night.

But research on lighting as a crime deterrent is inconclusive.

A 1997 study by the National Institute of Justice and presented to Congress offered the example of a brightly-lit ATM. While the light may make the customer feel safer, the report found that light also makes the customer more visible to a potential criminal.

"Who the lighting serves," the study concluded, "is unclear."

Downtown Truckee is a far cry from the Las Vegas strip, or Reno's Virginia Street. But it is increasingly bright.

On a recent evening, dozens of vintage lampposts lit up the restaurants and niche stores along downtown's historic district. The lamps may be intended for the sidewalk below, but they are unshielded and cast an indiscriminate orange glare into the sky. Not that it mattered much on this night – the only twinkle visible in the stormy night was the falling snow.

Sitting behind the counter at one of downtown's brightest businesses, the ConocoPhillips 76 gas station, Kraig Selph said he likes the idea of "country lighting." As the lit-up 76 globe spun outside, Selph explained how he moved to Truckee two decades ago for the rustic charm, only to see the town slowly morph into a busy resort, not unlike Aspen or Vail, Colo.

Selph's only concerns are that any new light restrictions don't compromise safety – or a sales pitch.

"You want people to see the price of your gas when they drive by," Selph said, chewing the idea over in his head a moment: "But I guess that's so long as it's lower than the next guy."

Truckee's light pollution problem isn't created just by light sources in Truckee. The glow of Reno's 24-hour downtown is visible to the east.

Jack Sales, a light pollution activist from Citrus Heights, said light can distort a nighttime view hundreds of miles away. For instance, light from Sacramento is visible at Mount Lassen – nearly 200 miles away.

Sales, Northern California's representative member of the International Dark-Sky Association, said some local cities have done better than others in regulating light pollution. Davis and Elk Grove, and Nevada and El Dorado counties all have "good words" on the books

Sales' Web site,, chronicles efforts to corral urban lighting.

Sales said he'd like to see Truckee take a cue from Davis' 1998 ordinance and require all light fixtures to include shields that prevent light from spilling upward and outward. He stressed that any ordinance should not include a grandfather clause.

Light pollution may not get the attention of, say, a polluted river or an endangered species, Sales said. But losing sight of the night sky is an environmental tragedy all the same.

"We lose something of our heritage and ourselves and our humanity," he said. "The night sky is a cultural resource that transcends time and place."

About the writer:

  • Call The Bee's Todd Milbourn, (916) 321-1063.