August 31, 2005

Stargazers Fret Over Light Pollution

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- Last weekend, the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society set up telescopes outside the Museum of Idaho to introduce people to stargazing. But then they saw the light. All but the brightest stars and planets were blotted out by reflection of the city's downtown lights in the night sky.

"We looked at Jupiter and Venus, but pretty much anything overhead, there wasn't a prayer," Mike Hart, president of the society, told the Post Register newspaper. "Those downtown lights point straight up. They're very pretty but the very worst design you could ask for."

Hart and other stargazers say light pollution is increasingly cutting into dark skies across eastern Idaho.

The area's black skies, high altitude and dry climate had long made for such optimum viewing conditions that NASA picked a spot west of Challis last year as the site for a new space observatory.

But the increasing urbanization of eastern Idaho cities, coupled with brighter security lights at Idaho National Laboratory and the Idaho Cleanup Project, are making it harder to spot heavenly bodies from the region.

The astronomical society holds its annual star party Friday and Saturday at Craters of the Moon National Monument, where 10 times more stars are visible - as many as 7,000 with the naked eye, according to the society's Web site - than in Idaho Falls.

"I know almost nothing about the astronomical aspect, other than the stars get harder to see," said Jack Liebenthal of Driggs, a member of the International Dark Sky Association, which is holding its annual conference in Yellowstone National Park next month. "I'm not an astronomer: I'm just an old guy who doesn't like light in his eyes."

Liebenthal was dazzled by the starry sky over the Teton Valley when he moved to Driggs from Idaho Falls, and remembers showing the spectacle to his granddaughter when she visited from Boise.

"We were out on a moonless night, and I said, 'There's the Milky Way,'" he said. "She said, 'I've never seen that before.'"

Liebenthal and Hart are among those urging area homeowners, businesses and city planners to use fixtures that focus light downward and to oppose bulbs that flood an area with bright, bluish light. Lights at car lots, baseball stadiums and many gas stations are the worst offenders, Liebenthal said.

While Jackson, Wyo., and Blaine County have dark-sky ordinances, Idaho Falls does not, said Todd Meyers, assistant city planner. Current lighting regulations limit the impact of commercial lighting on neighboring residences, he said.

At major intersections or pedestrian areas, the city places streetlights for safety reasons, said Van Ashton of Idaho Falls Power, the municipal electrical utility serving Idaho Falls.

"You're balancing some issues when you talk about light pollution," Ashton said. "Some folks don't want any lights, and others want more."


On the Net:

Idaho Falls Astronomical Society: .

International Dark Sky Association: