BY DIDIER SAUMON
“It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day, colored in the most intense violets, blues, and greens.” – Vincent Van Gogh
When I moved to Los Alamos twenty years ago, it was more than an opportunity to reorient my career and do exciting work. It was the realization of my long-held dream of living in a relatively remote area with dark skies, lots of clear nights and dry, transparent air. You see, for amateur astronomers like me, New Mexico offers some of the best conditions to explore and enjoy the universe.
The internet abounds with spectacular images of celestial objects worthy of an art show, yet there is nothing like seeing them with your own eyes and exploring the vastness of the universe from your own backyard. Think of seeing the “Pillars of creation” made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope; watching stars die in supernovae explosions; tracing the delicate threads in the tail of a comet and the whirls of spiral galaxies; exploring dense clusters of stars that are nearly as old as the universe; witnessing distorted galaxies in titanic yet silent collisions; picking out quasars whose light has traveled longer than the Earth is old; spotting an unremarkable faint star that is home to a planetary system; or finding, one week after launch, the James Webb Telescope that will soon reveal yet unimaginable wonders. These are just a few of the awe inspiring and, frankly, humbling experiences that the dark skies of New Mexico have to offer. Dark skies let you touch the infinite.
These experiences are threatened by light pollution: light that is excessive, misdirected, has no purpose, or is shining right into the sky. Across the USA, the amount of light pollution increases by about 2% per year, faster than the population growth. In Los Alamos County, the brightness of the night sky started to grow rapidly about five years ago. New developments, new roads, remodels, and new buildings have all added new lights, many without much consideration for sensible lighting design, their contribution to light pollution and their impact on the environment and night sky brightness. This has become obvious in my own observations of the night sky. Hundreds of stars are no longer visible with the naked eye and the Milky Way is not as vivid as when I moved to White Rock in 2002. If we keep at this rate, in ten years we will join the 80% of Americans who can no longer see the Milky Way from their homes.
The steady loss of quality of our night sky is heartbreaking, just as the loss of a forest to fire or bark beetles, the diminishing buzz of the bees that visit our gardens, or the die off of migratory birds. In each instance, we lose a connection with nature that nourishes and rejuvenates our spirit and that binds us to something ancestral and beautiful that is greater than ourselves.
The night sky in Los Alamos County and the surrounding area is still enviable but it will be our collective loss if we allow light pollution to grow further. It is possible to have it both ways: protect the night sky and have the lighting necessary to safely enjoy nighttime activities. The good news is that the recent degradation can be undone. A sensible and well-crafted lighting ordinance and the collective will to do our share to preserve the precious natural resource that is the night sky will benefit the whole community. We have an opportunity to affect the outcome as the county is currently revising its code of ordinances, including outdoor lighting (see losalamosconnect.org). The period of public comment extends until March 15.
May the stars be with you.