On a moonless night in Bryce Canyon National Park, you feel like you can reach out and touch the universe. Above the iconic sandstone hoodoos, the Milky Way stretches across the sky, a celestial rainbow arching from horizon to horizon. Visitors from around the globe come to the park to view stars undimmed by artificial light. In a world where excess artificial light, or light pollution, obscures the Milky Way from nearly one-third of humanity, Utah’s night skies are a natural resource rarer than any mineral—and potentially worth much more.
Bryce Canyon is just one of many International Dark Sky Places—locales that make efforts to preserve dark skies and educate about their value—and Utah has more than any other state or even country besides the U.S. And preserving dark skies does more than improve star-gazing; visitors will spend nearly $2.5 billion to see dark skies in national parks in the Colorado Plateau between 2013 and 2023, based on current trends, according to a report from Missouri State University. Light pollution also impacts public health, destroys wildlife habitat, and costs taxpayers—the U.S. alone wastes billions annually on inefficient lighting systems.
Worldwide, light pollution is growing twice as fast as Earth’s human population. In response, a new field has emerged that explores the impacts of artificial light and the loss of the night skies through a broad range of disciplines. The University of Utah is an international leader in this global movement; the U-based Consortium for Dark Sky Studies (CDSS) is the first academic center in the world dedicated to discovering, developing, communicating, and applying knowledge pertaining to the quality of the night skies. The multi-institutional consortium researches the public health, economic, and environmental impacts of the so-called “disappearing dark.”
“The importance of this issue reaches far beyond Utah’s borders. The consortium addresses the global issue: how to preserve dark skies and reduce the planet’s seemingly relentless increase, with multiple impacts, in light pollution,” says Stephen Goldsmith, co-director of the CDSS and associate professor of city and metropolitan planning at the U, who serves as the project’s principal investigator. “This makes the consortium a critically important resource for communities in the developed and developing world.”
ILLUMINATING DARK SKY STUDIES
The U is uniquely positioned to host studies of the dark sky. Utah’s vast tracts of public land provide substantial night skies unpolluted by man-made light, representing a boon of research opportunities. The consortium’s official status has spurred international collaborations; the CDSS partnered with the leading international ALAN (Artificial Light at Night) conference-organizing committee to host ALAN 2018 in Utah last November, the largest global conference to date examining the many aspects and impacts of artificial light.
“The Wasatch Mountains form the dividing line between the Wasatch Front, as light-polluted as the Los Angeles Basin, and the backside of the Wasatch, which boasts multiple parks in the process of becoming accredited International Dark Sky Parks,” says Dave Kieda, dean of the U’s graduate school and co-director of CDSS. “We believe this geographical juxtaposition gives us one of the best possible natural labs in the world for dark sky studies.”
In January, the W. M. Keck Foundation awarded $250,000 to the U to establish a new undergraduate minor in dark sky studies, the first of its kind in the country. Housed in the College of Architecture + Planning, the minor is open to all students interested in exploring issues through multiples lenses: the sciences, including public health, urban planning, and engineering, and the humanities, from religion to history and philosophy.
Students will also participate in field-based research, including inventing a new tool for understanding the impact of artificial light at night. The device, called Sky Drone, will be the first of its kind. Existing tools require an individual to record measurements by hand while traveling on foot, often taking weeks to survey an area. In contrast, the Sky Drone will remotely measure and map light sources over a large geographic space. After its development, all students in the dark sky minor will use the Sky Drone to research the impact of light in communities throughout the Colorado Plateau. Additionally, the technology could be patentable and become a vital tool for the increasing number of communities looking to improve their night skies and boost astronomy tourism, aka astro-tourism.
The minor seeks to create a new interdisciplinary model for undergraduate studies. Fifteen faculty members from all corners of campus are collaborating to develop courses that break down the traditional silos between the different departments. These course instructors will become a new cohort of scholars in dark sky studies, providing them a platform for working with peers from other institutions.
“Dark sky studies is a truly transdisciplinary field engaging disciplines ranging from the humanities, urban planning, and tourism to STEM and health,” says Daniel Mendoza, one of the minor’s core faculty members, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and the Division of Pulmonary Medicine. “The University of Utah has been leading the way since the inception of the CDSS, and, with the generosity of the Keck Foundation, we’re establishing the groundwork for continued educational and research opportunities.”
LET US ENLIGHTEN YOU
Did you know that light pollution can damage your health?
Like nearly every living thing on the planet, humans have evolved to Earth’s 24-hour day-night cycle, adhering to the so-called circadian rhythm, or our biological clock. Dawn’s first light (or the appearance of it) kicks off a chain of physiological actions in every cell in our bodies. Darkness cues our brain to release the melatonin that lulls us to sleep, setting off more actions that keep us alive—changing hormone levels, and even turning on and off various genes. But light pollution doesn’t just affect human health; the loss of darkness is linked to increased energy consumption and disrupted ecosystems and wildlife.
THE DARK SIDE OF LIGHT
What harm can light pollution cause?
You can help.
- Use shielded dark sky-friendly exterior fixtures that point down
- Use long-wavelength lights with a red or yellow tint
- Minimize blue light—you’ll sleep better if you put away electronics about 2-3 hours before bed
- Install timers and dimmer switches
- Turn lights off when not in use
Visit darksky.org to learn more.
Adapted from International Dark-Sky Association materials.
A DARKER UTAH, A BRIGHTER FUTURE
Dark sky studies provides opportunities for students to make real change as part of their undergraduate education. The Natural History Museum of Utah, a consortium member, recently mentored undergraduates studying multidisciplinary design to create an exhibit showcasing Utah’s unique exposure to the night sky. The exhibit was on display for many months, and due to its popularity, is being considered as a permanent installation. Illustrating how light pollution impacts the natural beauty and habitats of Utah, the interactive backdrop shows a silhouetted city against a night sky filled with stars. Visitors turn a knob that lights up the sky; the brighter the light, the fewer the stars.
The dark sky minor is training students for the emerging field of dark sky planning. A consortium partner, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), has worked extensively with Utah’s parks, monuments, and communities to preserve and protect their night skies. IDA provides guidance on implementing new lighting ordinances, retrofitting fixtures to reduce light pollution, and measuring light levels to ensure that starscapes are visible.
“You can’t ‘drive through’ dark skies; it requires an overnight stay plus two meals. That’s why astro-tourism is considered the most lucrative segment of the ecotourism market,” says Kelly S. Bricker, director of parks, recreation, and tourism at the U and a core faculty member of the dark sky minor.
“A number of communities in Southern and Central Utah are seeking to transition from traditional industries to the clean economic growth afforded by dark skies,” says Stephen Goldsmith. “Eighty percent of North America can no longer view the Milky Way and needs to travel to do so. The dry air of Utah and the superb public lands combine to make this one of the best geographies for exploring the night skies and our place in the universe.”
—Lisa Potter is a science writer for University Marketing & Communications.
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