MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Moving down from the stars now, but still staying up in the sky, let's talk about light pollution. That's defined as what happens when there's too much human light, artificial light, spilling into the natural world. The world where day is day and night is night and as diurnal creatures, we have eyes adapted to living that way, you know, in the sun's light.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
But a recent study suggests light pollution in a light-drenched city like Washington could be even worse for us than previously thought. Emily Friedman shines a light on why we're struggling with the issue and what we can do to remedy the situation.
MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN
Next time you're in D.C. at night, take a look at the sky. How many stars do you see?
MR. BOB PARKS
That's one, that's two, that's Jupiter, that's a planet. That's one of the brightest objects in the sky.
That's Bob Parks, the executive director of the International Dark Sky Association, the global authority on light pollution. We're standing outside his office in downtown D.C.
Planets, the moon and a few bright stars, that's it. On the clearest night that you could possibly get, I got four objects.
Four visible objects out of thousands.
Only an hour outside of the city you'll see thousands and thousands and thousands, more than you can count. You can see the Milky Way so bright it casts a shadow.
But in the city, he says, you have all this excess artificial light and that is what Parks and his organization are trying to combat. For 22 years, they've been promoting one basic rule, light what you need when you need it. Washington, D.C., Parks says, is not following that rule.
Well, D.C., unfortunately, for its size, has a large amount of light pollution. If you look from a satellite, we can actually see the outline of the District of Columbia because there's so much more light compared to its neighbors.
There are a couple of reasons why. One, D.C. uses historic-looking fixtures that send light out in all directions, including up to the sky.
These things, you know, yeah, maybe they look like something that would have been in Williamsburg, but Williamsburg didn't have them. They weren't this way. I mean, we're only talking about electric lighting in cities for about a century.
Not only that, but...
The streetlights are installed no more than 20 feet apart. Why, because these things are so inefficient.
So wasted light means a lot of wasted money. Excess light is also known to disturb human sleep cycles, cause car accidents. It can even disorient birds and lead them to smack into buildings. Back in 2009, the D.C. city council requested a light pollution study by the District's Department of the Environment. The department never did the study and the council never followed up. However, Parks says he's optimistic D.C. will fix the problem soon, mostly because of a scientific breakthrough he's calling a game-changer and that game-changer comes to us care of this guy.
DR. HARALD STARK
My name is Harald Stark, that's the German pronunciation of it.
So you're out in Boulder, right?
Dr. Stark is with NOAA.
I'm a research scientist.
About a month ago, he discovered that...
There's something happening chemically from the city lights.
City lights are affecting what happens in the sky?
Here's how. Up in the air, about a quarter mile above the city, there's a molecule that exists only at night. It's known as NO3.
In a way, it's a little bit like a cleanser molecule.
NO3 destroys air pollutants, a pretty good molecule to have around. But the NO3 does not do well around city lights.
The lights are intense enough and have the right color as well to destroy a certain amount of the NO3.
As much as 7 percent of the NO3 could be destroyed over a city like D.C., which, of course, means more pollution. And wait, it gets even worse. Not only is the sky left with fewer of its cleaning molecules, but by the next morning, pieces of the destroyed NO3 have taken on a new identity, ozone, the air pollutant. And more smog is something this city just can't afford. Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh says it's time to make a move.
MS. MARY CHEH
I think people think of lighting as benign and so what if you light up the night sky. It's somewhat unsatisfactory and a slight bit demoralizing to me that we continue to do what we've been doing in the past.
Two years ago, Cheh was the one pushing for that lighting study which never happened. In the meantime, she's been researching ways to fund a lighting overhaul. She says she's planning a joint hearing between the council and the Departments of Environment and Transportation.
So that I can get a handle, what is DDOE doing? What is DDOT doing? What do they anticipate for the future? What's the game plan here?
As Bob Parks and I head back to his office, he points out, in terms of environmental policy, light pollution is pretty easy to fix.
Air pollution and water pollution, these things take decades to reverse. We've got to get people to the table and just stop doing things the way they've been doing because it's the way they've been doing it. Things could change so quickly.
Parks says he's optimistic others will soon see the light and the stars as well. I'm Emily Friedman.
For more information on the International Dark Sky Association and that NOAA study you heard about, visit our website, metroconnection.org. And if all this is making you want to do a little stargazing yourself, you can join up with the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club for a star party on February 5th. We have a link to that on our website too.
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