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Legislature to consider bill to reduce light pollution

Saving the starry night

Monday, May 07, 2001

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As a boy growing up in a New York City suburb, John Radzilowicz peered through telescopes and binoculars hoping to see the celestial splendor described in his books.

The bright glow from Pittsburgh's city lights is easily seen from Troy Hill. (Gabor Degre/Post-Gazette)

But it wasn't until the lightning-induced blackout of 1977 turned off the lights in the metropolis that he even got a good look at the starry band of the Milky Way. The glow from city lights usually whitewashed the night sky and camouflaged the stars and planets.

"I was amazed what you could see when the lights went out," said Radzilowicz, now director of the Buhl Planetarium and Observatory. "That's what I think people are missing. They really don't understand how much is up there that they could be seeing."

Poorly designed street lamps and misdirected spotlights have increasingly thrown glowing litter into the sky. It's called light pollution.

To reduce the problem in Pennsylvania, Rep. Bruce Smith, R-York, has introduced the Outdoor Lighting Control Act, a bill in the state House of Representatives that would require specific types of light fixtures to be used outside. It also would penalize individuals and businesses guilty of so-called light trespass.

 
  Planetarium conference opening here

Buhl Planetarium and Observatory at the Carnegie Science Center will host the 2001 Middle Atlantic Planetarium Society conference Wednesday through Saturday. The association is the largest regional planetarium organization in the world, with more than 400 members.

Attending will be representatives from planetariums throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as Japan, Germany, South Africa and the Netherlands.

Part of the purpose of the meeting will be for Buhl to showcase planetarium shows it develops and sells to other planetariums.

Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" will be among the speakers. He is the star of Buhl's most recent show developed to introduce preschoolers to astronomy.

"We have already sold shows to many of the planetariums that will be here," said Buhl's director, John Radzilowicz. "I think many of them are here to do a little 'shopping' and are looking to see first-hand 'The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' and how they can incorporate it into their programming."

The conference, which is not open to the public, will begin Wednesday evening with a presentation from veteran shuttle astronaut Story Musgrave.

   
 

"Seven states already have legislation on the books regarding light pollution," Smith said, including Connecticut, Iowa and Texas. Municipalities in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio and other states also have enacted light pollution ordinances.

A public hearing will be held Wednesday in Harrisburg. The bill has more than 20 sponsors, including Rep. Arthur Hershey, R-Cochranville, who chairs the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, to which the bill was assigned.

Smith wasn't surprised that the bill didn't get a hearing when he introduced it late in the last legislative session. He is encouraged by the support it has gained since then.

Astronomers are always battling to detect the faint glow of distant objects. Telescopes are built with large mirrors and lenses to gather as much light as possible from a small point in the sky and are being made ever larger as astronomers hope to see ever fainter, more distant stars and galaxies. But even telescopes have difficulty detecting faint objects if the surrounding sky is bright.

Even at night, the sky is never completely dark. Starlight and moonlight can brighten the night sky. Also, when solar radiation strikes the upper atmosphere, it causes some oxygen, nitrogen and other atmospheric gases to become electrically charged; when these charged atoms combine with each other, they emit a faint light called airglow.

Artificial lighting can cause two problems. Light that shines directly into an observer's eye or telescope is called glare, or light trespass. Most of the concern regarding light pollution, however, focuses on skyglow, the additional brightness that occurs as light escapes into the sky.

Generally, light pollution countermeasures include the use of shielding known as full-cutoff lighting so that lamps don't light up the sky as well as the street.

Proponents say that if the light is directed down where it's needed, lower- wattage bulbs could be used to brighten sidewalks and roadways. Because less power would be used, the cost would be less and gas and coal power plants would generate fewer pollutants.

"In America, we waste $2 billion per year on excess electricity," Smith said. "As energy goes up in price, we have all the more need to conserve. So it's a conservation bill as well as a common-sense bill."

The bill proposes fining people up to $100 if they set up units that cast light without permission onto the property of another person in a manner that reduces privacy or hinders sleep. In addition, future installations done by or for state agencies would have to use full-cutoff lighting, with possible exceptions for sports stadiums or areas where reduced illumination poses a threat to safety.

But light pollution activists argue that it's a myth to say that more light means less crime. Glare and poorly directed light from bad lamps can reduce visibility and create sharp contrasts where bright areas neighbor shadowy ones.

If lights were appropriately shielded, "you take down the glare, you reduce the contrast and actually visibility is better," Radzilowicz explained "It's not a question of giving up anything in safety. Again, it's a win-win situation all around."

Some have found this out first-hand.

Astronomers working at Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Mass., which is operated by Harvard University, couldn't see the stars well enough because of skyglow. They discussed the problem with the townspeople, and gradually the streetlamps were changed to shielded versions that maintained the old-fashioned charm of the New England town.

Radzilowicz watched the sky grow darker there over five to eight years. Like many places, Harvard had a glow that was visible from the highway that approached it.

"You could see that fade away over the years," he said. If legislation is approved in Pennsylvania, "I know we will see a difference. [But] it will not be instantly."

The astronomer wished that the designers of the new football stadium that neighbors the planetarium had not chosen antique-looking open globe lights for the street leading to the sports facility.

"They're trying to add atmosphere," Radzilowicz said. "Wonderful, but there are no shields on the tops. So a tremendous portion of the light that comes out of those lamposts is going to go up into the sky and into your eyes."

The Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh owns and operates the Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park in West Deer. Even out there, light pollution has had an effect, said observatory Director Tom Reiland.

"It's not nearly as dark as it was back in the early '80s when we were going through an energy crisis" that made people turn out their lights, he said. "The sky is about twice as bright as it was when I started going up there 20 years ago."

Reiland added that astronomers aren't the only nocturnal creatures that feel the impact of skyglow.

"Many birds migrate following the stars," he explained. "If they go through an area where they can't see the stars, they end up getting lost."

According to information on the Web site of the Tucson, Ariz.-based International Dark-Sky Association, floodlights and light reflections from glass can attract and disorient birds, leading to deadly crashes into communication towers, office buildings and windows.

Smith's bill also proposes that the Department of Environmental Protection designate "dark areas" to enhance astronomical observations or protect plant and wildlife in suitable places, such as Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, in the northern part of the state.

There was a time when people had such familiarity with the night sky, they judged the seasons by stargazing, Radzilowicz noted.

But now, he added, "most city dwellers don't expect to be able to see anything in the sky at night."

On the Net

International Dark Sky Association http://www.darksky.org/ida/

Amatuer Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh http://www.3ap.org/



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