Liddick: For the love of God, let there be darkness
January 6, 2015
This new year let's all resolve to save a precious natural resource: the dark sky. It's easy, costs almost nothing and has many benefits other than aesthetic ones. It might even save a little money.
Start with simple things. Do what mom always told you: When you leave a room with no intention of returning immediately, turn off the light. Use only the lumens you need in a lamp. For reading, 1,200–1,500 lumens is adequate; a 75–100 watt incandescent or a 20-watt CFL bulb will produce that. Both CFL and LED lights are more efficient than incandescent, offering additional savings over time but our question is light produced, so the author is agnostic on which type to use. What is important is to use only what is needed. For "ambient" or room lighting, less is necessary; your dining-room chandelier should not give you sunburn during dinner.
Preventing light leakage is important. At night, draw curtains or shut blinds. Not only will this help retain heat through Summit County's cold winter nights, it will curb light pollution, protecting the environment of night.
For exterior lighting, direction and shielding are key. If it's impossible to recess the light on the outside of your home, simply boxing in fixtures or replacing glass panels with tin inserts to focus the light where it is needed will work. Every photon speeding into the sky or wandering off into the woods is a loss to the user and a contaminant to the rest of us. Every photon skittering aimlessly around the landscape creates pools of darkness in which someone up to no good may conceal themselves. An excellent guide to pollution-busting, effective exterior lighting fixtures can be had at the International Dark Skies Association's website, http://www.darksky.org/lighting-guidance/residential-lighting-guide.
Government and industry also have a role to play — in Summit County some are doing it better than others. Several gas stations rebuilt over the past few years have incorporated excellent light pollution-reducing features: full canopy coverage, recessed and directed lights, sodium-vapor bulbs. They're easy to spot, and they should get more business for being responsible. Silverthorne should also be congratulated for their move to full-cutoff street lights, at least on Adams Avenue. Now in place for several years, they are a fine example of exterior lighting that is both aesthetically pleasing and effective: light goes down, not up or to the sides.
Unfortunately, more is necessary. Not only should all Summit County businesses be encouraged to follow their more responsible associates, county government should develop comprehensive regulations for light pollution, both general and for "trespass" — the incursion of light from a neighbor's fixture onto another's property. People are usually amenable to requests that care be taken with exterior lights, but not all are. And a few are wedded to the theory that if 150 watts is good, 5,000 watts should be, well, way better.
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France might be a model here. You heard that right. For once, in this limited instance, we ought to be like the French. Seven months ago their government implemented its "Lights Out" initiative, which has dramatically curbed light pollution by demanding the simple steps noted above and requiring that most exterior lighting be shut off after 1 a.m. Exceptions are made for holidays and high-traffic "tourist areas." An additional benefit is that energy consumption across France dropped by approximately 9 percent — sufficient to power 750,000 homes. With such results, the Green crowd should knock each other down to get on board.
Why is any of this important? That's hard to explain, but easy to see. The next clear, moonless night — you'll have to wait at least a week — drive to the summit of Vail or Loveland pass after the ski areas close. Bundle up. Get out of the car and wait for about five minutes with no lights, so your eyes can adjust. Then look up, and see wonders: the Milky Way, our galaxy, stretches across the dome of night. To the east, depending on the hour, Orion will be rising. Look carefully at his sword, the small line of stars pointing southeast from his belt and you will see the Great Nebula — a naked eye object in Summit County.
When you are done, go home and have a look at Earth's night side from space. One of the best studies is at http://www.ourenergypolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/grid-image.jpg; Colorado's Front Range is clearly visible as blobs of light along I-25. This is the future: Stars slowly fading as the night sky turns from transparent blackness to opaque grey and one of mankind's oldest legacies is erased. Our grandchildren will never understand what we saw by the simple act of looking up at night. Unless we act.
So yes, mom was right: if you're not using it, turn it off.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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