In Part 3 of this series on vision statements for Wickenburg I dealt with the issue of conservation of our water resources. Part 4 will focus on the preservation of our night sky, why it is important and why it is worth protecting.
Conservation – Light Pollution vs. Dark Skies
Have you ever camped in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, or perhaps up in the Sierra Ancha Wilderness Area on the rim of Cherry Creek Canyon; or other places where the glow of civilization does not penetrate the night sky? If so, then you have undoubtedly experienced skies that were so bright with stars that you had to force yourself to go to sleep. These are places where you can see a half dozen or more satellites in less than five minutes, where you can see meteors burning tracks across the sky all night long. These are places where the belt of the Milky Way is not just visible, it is brilliant.
When we moved to Wickenburg in 2000 I could look toward the metro-Phoenix area at night and see a small glow of light pollution on the southeastern horizon. By placing my two fists together at arms length, I could easily “blot out” this source of light. At that time the small glow was not particularly troublesome for viewing the great constellations of Scorpius and Orion. I was just happy that I had returned to a clear and star-bright sky after having lived in polluted environments for a number of years.
Today, that arc of light pollution spans a width of three and a half feet between my outstretched arms and rises about 25 degrees above the horizon. On nights when the pollution in Phoenix is especially bad the reflective glow is even worse and, as Peoria and Surprise race toward our southern border the quality of our night sky will continue to erode. The “arc” of light pollution will greatly expand.
To me, the quality of the night sky is every bit as important as the panoramic vista that surrounds Wickenburg during daylight hours. It was (and remains) one of many reasons why we selected Wickenburg as our home and it is a quality of life issue that I would hope we can all preserve. In a figurative manner, once we’ve lost our view of the night sky we have, in effect, lost our most important visual connection with the universe. We might as well be members of an ant colony.
It was encouraging to read a letter to the Wickenburg Sun from Curtis Arnett in the November 14th edition, titled “Dark-sky ordinance needed to keep night sky enjoyable.” Mr. Arnett correctly points out that the urban glow of metro-Phoenix greatly inhibits the enjoyment of the southern night sky. At present you can still look east toward the Bradshaw Mountains, north toward Congress and Prescott, or west toward Aguila and enjoy relatively clear, dark skies.
As a community, the threat we pose to the loss of our night sky is as great as the metropolitan growth that is moving toward us from the southeast – there are numerous locations around Wickenburg that contribute significant light pollution. For example, the athletic fields near the airport use lighting that needlessly scatters in all directions, producing a nighttime glow that is visible for several miles.
As Wickenburg grows in geographic size, along with its use of outdoor lighting, the cumulative glow will continue to increase unless we work together to limit its effect.
Many cities and towns in Arizona have enacted light pollution ordinances in an effort to preserve their night sky and it can work for us as well. In locations like Flagstaff and Tucson, their “Night Sky” efforts protect important astronomical facilities such as the Lowell and Kitt Peak observatories. Light sources that originate from well beyond the visible horizon degrade the quality of these research facilities.
As a vision statement for the preservation of our night sky habitat, Wickenburg should:
- Define an objective “tolerance level” for light pollution in Wickenburg. In other words, how many lumens of light will we permit to radiate into the night sky within a given measure of area? There are abundant sources of help on this issue from other cities in Arizona, as well as our universities.
- Establish and enforce ordinances that limit light pollution caused by public, commercial and residential use.
- Establish and preserve open spaces on our southern boundaries that will serve as barriers to the encroaching light pollution of metro-Phoenix.
- Strive to maintain a generally low density of housing within current and future town limits. I do not know how to define this objective in quantifiable or even meaningful terms, but I think you would agree that lower density translates into lower light pollution.
The window of opportunity to manage this problem is closing. Once we have lost our night sky we will not retrieve it for future generations.
Last 5 posts by Allan Hall
- Wickenburg Hospitality Comes in Many Forms - December 15th, 2010
- Calliandra Eriophylla is Native to the Wickenburg Area - December 9th, 2010
- Goodbye, Old Bridge - November 29th, 2010
- Abandoned Mines Part III: Preserving the "Whispering Ranch" Mine - March 25th, 2010
- Abandoned Mines Part II: Protective Closures - March 10th, 2010