A desert plea: Let there be darkness
Even in the wilderness where the mountains meet the desert, city lights are ever encroaching.
A bright lamp from a far-off parking lot began marring the night sky in a rural corner of the high desert in the Antelope Valley about three years ago.
The glow went all the way to the home of Wayne Argo from about five miles away. Argo had long exulted in how dark it got at his ranch-style home, separated from downtown Los Angeles by 35 miles and the San Gabriel Mountains.
“I can see millions more stars than people that live in the city,” said Argo, who lives 20 miles southeast of Palmdale. “It’s unbelievable. I can see the Milky Way — the whole Milky Way.”
But now, he said, parking lot lights shining in the distance are “one of the brightest things you see at night.”
“It’s affecting everyone around that area,” said Argo, director of the Assn. of Rural Town Councils.
Complaints by him and others have caused the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to consider restrictions on lighting offenders in rural areas of the county.
Supervisors recently asked the Department of Regional Planning to develop a rural lighting zoning ordinance that would apply to areas that include the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys and the Santa Monica Mountains.
“Lighting in these rural areas can be disruptive to the visual environment. It can destroy one’s views of the heavens and the stars,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the Santa Monica Mountains. “We’re trying to preserve as much of the rural character of the rural parts of the county as possible.”
To do so, he said, lighting on tennis courts, streets and ball fields should be focused on the ground, rather than in the sky or horizontally, to reduce unwanted glare. Yaroslavsky cited Pepperdine University in the hills above Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu as a “classic example” of a location where an ordinance would help mitigate “the impact of lights on their campus and on the broader area.”
Concerns about so-called light pollution have been popping up for the last 18 months in rural northern L.A. County, with complaints from residents of Acton, Juniper Hills and other communities, said aides to Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.
In Leona Valley, a resident had his horse corral “lit up like Las Vegas,” with big, tall light poles around an arena that remained lighted late at night, angering neighbors, said Paul Novak, planning deputy to Antonovich. The resident agreed to shield the lamps, turn them toward the ground and switch them off at a reasonable hour.
“In other cases, brand-new houses that were built had exterior lighting that was shining quite a way off the individual property,” said Norm Hickling, another Antonovich deputy. “It highlighted the fact that there needed to be stronger standards.”
Los Angeles County supervisors have directed county staffers to present an ordinance and a study to the Regional Planning Commission for a public hearing no later than Sept. 28.
Yaroslavsky said anti-light pollution ordinances have been used extensively and to great effect in Arizona, where clear, dark skies have been favored by astronomers for generations.
The city of Flagstaff, home to a U.S. Naval Observatory facility and Lowell Observatory — where Pluto was discovered — instituted an anti-light pollution ordinance in 1958. Pima County, which includes Tucson, instituted its own in 1972, and Arizona lawmakers passed a statewide measure in 1986.
Tucson, where lighting has been regulated for nearly four decades, is about 50 miles from Kitt Peak National Observatory. A study released in September found that the sky above Kitt Peak, which has a collection of two dozen telescopes, has remained just as dark as it was 20 years ago. The findings were particularly notable considering the large growth in nearby population, said Elizabeth M. Alvarez del Castillo, an assistant to the observatory’s director.
Alvarez del Castillo said the ordinances were not about making neighborhoods dimmer but about making smart choices to avoid wasting light.
The rules have benefitted the businesses that operate the lights because electricity is saved when light is focused on its target. Focusing lights can also prevent unneeded glare from blinding motorists, said Johanna Duffek, a spokeswoman for the International Dark-Sky Assn., a nonprofit group launched by astronomers in Tucson.
“Where you are focusing your light on the ground, you can use a lesser wattage lamp or bulb, and this will save money,” Duffek said. “Now you’re using less power to light better. You’re producing less glare.”
Opponents of light pollution note that excessive light also can have disturbing effects on wildlife. For example, baby sea turtles, which must immediately crawl into the sea after hatching on the beach, can become disoriented by artificial lights from the shore. Instead of following the moonlight shining off the waves, they could head toward land — and toward their deaths.
Light sent upward is reflected back to the ground by dust, water vapor and air molecules, according to a NASA report published in 2001. It cited a study that said perhaps two-thirds of the world’s population cannot see the Milky Way at night.
Los Angeles is one of the cities from which it is not visible. Light pollution has erased much of the night sky for decades, said Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory. In 1986, many Angelenos couldn’t see Halley’s Comet with the naked eye, Krupp said.
Efforts by the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting to combat light pollution by capping the tops of street lights to deflect light down have made a difference, Krupp said. But commercial lights, including the strobing search lights used to attract attention, have worsened the situation.
“A perpetual operation, night after night, causes severe problems for looking at an object in that part of the sky,” Krupp said.
So foreign are the real night skies to Los Angeles that in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake jostled Angelenos awake at 4:31 a.m., the observatory received many calls asking about “the strange sky they had seen after the earthquake.”
“We finally realized what we were dealing with,” Krupp said. “The quake had knocked out most of the power, and people ran outside and they saw the stars. The stars were in fact so unfamiliar; they called us wondering what happened.”