Gaze into the sky on a moonless night in April in the Northern Hemisphere, and pick out Hydra, the sea serpent, Regulus, the “heart of the lion” star in the Leo constellation, and Crater, which represents the goblet of the Greek god Apollo.

Of course, depending on where you are — standing under a streetlight, say, or in many urban and suburban environments — the stars can be hard to see. Light pollution (light emitted at night that extends beyond the horizontal plane, shining up instead of down) affects not only our ability to stargaze, but also the environment and safety: Certain lights throw off glares that can actually make it harder to see at night, and many lights left on at night waste energy and can confuse wildlife.

“Awareness of dark skies is at an all-time high, but so is the problem [of light pollution],” said Scott Kardel, managing director of the International Dark-Skies Association, a nonprofit headquartered in Tucson, Ariz. “Two-thirds of the people who live in the United States can no longer see the Milky Way. But [dark skies-friendly] technology is easier to produce than ever. The right kinds of fixtures are far more available now than they were 10 years ag0, which has a profound ability to lessen our impact on the night.”

In 1999, the New Mexico Legislature passed the Night Sky Protection Act, which regulates outdoor lighting fixtures, with an aim of keeping the sky darker and curtailing nighttime energy waste.

According to information from the IDA, New Mexico is one of 20 states with some sort of dark skies regulation. Ordinances vary from state to state: Some focus solely on regulating outdoor lighting fixtures, while others are more comprehensive.

“Since the state’s Night Sky Protection Act was passed, many counties and municipalities have passed their own ordinances,” said Peter Lipscomb, the northwest regional interpretive ranger for New Mexico State Parks and, in his spare time, president of the Capital City Astronomy Club.

In 1998, the Santa Fe City Council unanimously passed an outdoor lighting ordinance that requires new commercial and residential construction to shield outdoor lights, except for exposed bulbs of 160 watts or less.

“Businesses and developments are usually in compliance [with the outdoor lighting ordinance] because they’re checked before their permits are approved,” said Matthew O’Reilly, the city’s Land Use Department director. “We get the rare complaint, generally once or twice a year, and that’s usually one neighbor complaining about another neighbor.”

Lipscomb believes that since the Night Sky Protection Act and outdoor lighting ordinance were passed, light fixture compliance has increased in Santa Fe. “The Las Soleras building site at the end of Cerrillos Road is using compliant fixtures, which direct light downward and shield against glare,” he said. “Compare that to some of the automobile dealerships on Cerrillos. They have lights from before, [and] those are a bit of mix and match.”

Measuring light emissions can be tricky, and Lipscomb believes that updated language in state, county and municipal ordinances would help.

“There’s nothing really relevant about wattage anymore,” he said. “We need to start looking at lumens as the measure of the output.” Lumens measure the luminous flux, or the total amount of visible light emitted.

“When we talk about Earth Day, we have to consider what the impact of our demand for lighting is, in terms of generating power and how that contributes to climate change,” Lipscomb continued. “[Our power plants] mostly burn coal, and those harmful emissions directly contribute to climate change. If we reduce the demand for lighting and make smarter choices, we’ll see the sky of our ancestors, save money and lower our impact on the environment.”

“I think one of the biggest issues [facing dark skies] is awareness,” said Charlie O’Leary, executive director of the Santa Fe Conservation Trust. “We need to be more careful and considerate in our use of lighting.”

The Santa Fe Conservation Trust promotes dark skies through educational programming, like its star parties in the Galisteo Basin.

Individuals can make a difference for dark skies, O’Leary and Kardel said.

“Evaluate the lights you have control over,” Kardel said. “See if your outdoor lights are dark skies-friendly. Switch them off, look into appropriate brightness, think about lights that are activated by motion sensors. Most lights don’t need to be on all the time.”

Lipscomb, Kardel and O’Leary say it is important to remind people why dark skies are important.

“The night sky is a natural resource that has been part of our world since long ago,” Lipscomb said. “Most species evolve around cycles of day and night, and every culture in the world has mythology around the night sky. … In terms of us as individuals, the night sky contributes to having a sense of place. We want to see the same sky we saw as kids, or the sky our grandparents saw. That’s an important connection to maintain. We all experience the night, and it is deserving of our protection.”

Contact Adele Oliveira at 986-3091 or aoliveira@sfnewmexican.com.

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(2) comments

Emil_Saure

Yes, we have light pollution laws but it's almost impossible to get police or governments ( local or state) to enforce them. The fines for violations are ridiculously low and do not increase for subsequent violations. Most corporate light polluters just write of the tiny fines as a cost of doing business.

karl hardy

Just try to get the law enforced - I was told it was the law but nothing the police could do about it - I would have to pay a lawyer to go to court to get it enforced.

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