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Blinded by the lights

As earthly glare worsens, hiding the stars from sight, towns are acting to take back the dark

(Sky & Telescope Magazine Satellite Photo)

When Maine students visit professor Tim Barker's astronomy class at Wheaton College, they are usually stunned by how little can be seen from the campus observatory. "They always say, 'It's a different sky where I'm from,' " he said.

Different indeed. While northern New Englanders can still see the night sky clearly, Boston-area suburbanites now have a hard time making out much more than the moon and the biggest stars because of creeping light pollution from development.

"It's gotten steadily worse in the last 10 years or so," said Barker. A decade ago, you could easily see the Milky Way, he said. But now you can barely find it. Trying to discern a galaxy is often, he says, "like trying to see a distant light when someone's shining headlights at it."

Light pollution, caused by any outdoor lighting, is especially evident in fast-growing regions, such as the south of Boston. Overall, it is increasing at a rate of 5 to 10 percent a year in the United States and Europe, according to estimates from the Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy.

Several states have enacted light-pollution laws requiring developers to use down-facing or lower-wattage light fixtures. Massachusetts has not. But a handful of area towns are taking action on their own.

Scituate and Abington have introduced light pollution measures, which force businesses and residences to curtail artificial lighting, and Plymouth has been out front on the issue. Plymouth's dark-sky regulation has helped make the town something of a mecca for local astronomers.

"It was a no-brainer to the people of Plymouth," said Carl Fletcher, president and cofounder of a nonprofit organization, the Step Foundation, which collaborates with schools on science needs. "It sailed through Town Meeting."

That law requires that all lights be shielded, to limit glare and prevent light from shining beyond the boundaries of the development. One type of light - mercury-vapor/quartz light - is prohibited, on grounds it is the brightest and least efficient. Individual homeowners are exempt from the bylaw.

"In a moderately illuminated suburb, the night sky has only 200 or 300 visible stars. In large cities, people are lucky if they can see more than a few dozen," according to an article by Art Upgren in the Amicus Journal, and offered as support for the Plymouth bylaw. "As develoment occurs in Plymouth, fewer and fewer stars will be visible."

Local astronomers hope Plymouth has set an example that the rest of the South Shore will follow.

"We're very fortunate in Plymouth that we have abundant dark skies," said Fletcher. The foundation recently secured funds for an observatory at the Plymouth Community Intermediate School, which already boasts a planetarium. A devoted astronomy buff, Fletcher said he credits residents and the town with passing the light-pollution bylaw, and making sure it's enforced.

Louis Gentile, vice president of the South Shore Astronomical Society, said his group of amateur astronomers "keeps getting chased farther south."

"The effect from light pollution is very dramatic," he said. "It distorts everything." His group often hauls their telescopes to Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, which is considered the darkest spot on the South Shore.

Bill Luzader of Brockton, a self-proclaimed "star-hugger" and member of the South Shore Astronomical Society who runs the school planetarium, said reducing light pollution is beneficial for many reasons other than star-gazing.

First, it saves money by slashing energy costs. "You could completely ignore the dark-sky issues and just look at all the wasted energy it takes to light the night sky," he said. Options such as low-wattage lighting, lights that switch on automatically when cars or people approach, or simply shutting off lights that would otherwise burn all night are undeniably economical. And environmentally friendly.

Migratory animals are also affected by light pollution, Luzader said. Sea turtles reportedly head inland toward brightly-lighted malls and parking lots because they think they're headed toward the coast. And experts say that thousands of birds crash into lighted buildings they take for constellations.

Finally, artificial outdoor lighting creates a glare that can be hazardous to drivers. Headlights, experts now say, are sufficient to brighten roadways; all other lighting is extraneous and potentially harmful.

In 1988, the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit agency in Arizona, began educating the public about ways to return darkness to the skies. Since then, astronomers say, there has been a noticeable shift. Builders, engineers, and architectural firms are learning that improved lighting is the way to go.

"It's becoming mainstream in the site-design world," said Weymouth architect Ronald Boretti, whose Boston firm, Cubellis, has been incorporating preferred light fixtures into its designs for the past year and a half.

"It's pretty much as easy to design and use the right fixtures as it is to design and use the wrong fixtures," said Boretti, who in January won an award from the International Dark-Sky Association for his efforts to limit light pollution.

Steve LaFlamme, a pharmacist and amateur astronomist from Bridgewater, said he feels the future looks bright for a return to dark skies.

"I was reading about a proposed casino in Middleborough, and somebody brought up the point of limiting light pollution there," he said. "I was glad to hear they were thinking about it."

LaFlamme used to volunteer at the observatory at Bridgewater State College. But after a while, bright lights from area development caused him to look elsewhere. "Light pollution ruined it," he said ruefully. "They put in all these orange vapor sodium lights. It made the nighttime sky look like daytime."

LaFlamme found a unique solution, though. In 1997, he built his own observatory in his Bridgewater backyard. His equipment is better than at the college, he said, and there's less light pollution.

Professor Martina Arndt, director of the physics program at Bridgewater State, said "there's been a lot of light pollution" since she arrived on campus in 2000. It's a "huge issue" for many reasons, she said, but mainly because it interferes with scientific research.

"There's no reason at all to light the sky. It's very wasteful," she said.

Besides that, she said, "There are whole areas of the country now filled with young people who've never even noticed the night sky. It's important for kids to be able to look up and see the stars."

Lisa Kocian of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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