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Global Dark-Sky Movement Eyes Maui

Maui physicist sheds light on over-illumination of our night skies and offers recommendations to mitigate the problem “by using Enhanced Spectrum Limited lighting.”

April 19, 2012
Mira Allen , The Maui Weekly

The summit of Haleakala on a clear night is nothing less than a fantastic visual symphony. A single glance overhead is enough to leave even the most cynical viewer in awe--the heavens here sparkle with an infinite number of celestial bodies crowding every visible inch of sky. At more than 10,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, Haleakala's pinnacle rises above a third of the Earth's atmosphere, making it a much-cherished location for astronomers the world over.

Dr. Joe Ritter, physicist and laboratory director the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy Advanced Technology Research Center, treated the public to a lecture last month at Maikalani Advanced Technology Research Center in Pukalani, where he elaborated on the issue of over-illumination before an audience of approximately 50.

"Statistically, it [Haleakala] is the third best site in the world for astronomy," said Dr. Ritter. "Because of the remarkable clarity, dryness, stability of the air and its elevation, as well as the absence of the lights of major cities, Haleakala is one of the most sought-after locations in the world for ground-based telescopes."

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The Haleakala summit is one of the most coveted places on earth for ground-based telescopes “because of the remarkable clarity, dryness, stability of the air and its elevation, and absence of the lights of major cities.” The dark-sky movement aims to keep it that way by calling for more responsible outdoor lighting practices, among other things.

But dark skies are necessary for much more than preserving astronomers' ability to peer into faraway galaxies. The unnecessary over-illumination of civilization is a source of countless consequences worldwide.

Badly placed or poorly utilized light can confuse migrating birds, create devastating algae blooms in bodies of water, and contribute to psychological issues in humans, including medically defined stress and decreased sexual function.

Newly hatched sea turtles are born and know to dig themselves free of their earthen nests. In their first moments of life, they innately head toward the ocean. However, this journey can be hindered by artificial light, which has been known to disorient the hatchlings. Confusion can often prove fatal for many a turtle as they head in the wrong direction, causing them to become midnight snacks for all manner of predators.

Over-illumination of our night skies has produced a movement that calls for the revamping of the way our skies our lit. And the blessing of Haleakala's vantage point has made Maui a major focus for what has come to be known as the dark-sky movement (DSM). Conceptualized in the early 1980s, DSM calls for more responsible lighting to positively affect astronomy, ecology and psychology. The campaign touches on sustainable energy practices, sound ecological stewardship and the psychological well-being of humans worldwide.

"Over-illumination is the excessive use of light," said Dr. Ritter. "In the United States, lighting energy accounts for [the equivalent of] five million barrels of oil per day. Energy audit data shows that from 30 to 60 percent of energy consumed in lighting is unneeded or gratuitous."

Dr. Ritter points to outdoor lighting as the first order of business in bringing this issue under control. Maui County is currently mulling over a major switch in its illumination strategy. The street lights that line our island roads seem to be headed toward an inevitable LED retrofit, which could save an estimated $1 million a year in energy bills. This has been touted as way to lower both the carbon footprint and the cost of lighting Maui's roadways.

Dr. Ritter cautions that what may seem like a positive step forward could quickly become two steps back if not addressed correctly. He said many LEDs currently on the market vastly contribute to over-illumination and create a high level of light in spectrum colors that are not easily viewed by the human eye.

He raised the example of what has become the scourge of drivers everywhere--the blue LED headlights that pierce the dark from the front of many new cars induce temporary blindness for anyone unfortunate enough to be in the path of the beam.

This blue light contributes to a high-intensity glare and can be potentially damaging to the retina. This is where Enhanced Spectrum Limited (ESL) lighting comes in. This type of LED still offers the financial and energy saving benefits of LEDs, but with the added benefit of providing them without the common misguided glare of blue spectrum light.

"We can cut street lighting costs [in Maui County] in half and maintenance [costs] by 90 percent," said Dr. Ritter. "By using ESL lighting, every homeowner, every business with a parking lot, every car dealer, every storage lot, anyone who turns on an old light outside can cut their outdoor lighting bill in half while being environmentally responsible. It's a win-win scenario."

Dr. Ritter has taken up the issue with the county in his position as the chair of the Outdoor Lighting Standards Committee, which advises the Maui County Council on such matters. He has also worked with a company in San Jose to further develop ESL lighting.

"Changes will happen and must be done carefully and responsibly," he said "By installing 2000K Enhanced Spectrum Limited with low blue content, the county can have lights that provide excellent color rendition for law enforcement, provide even, low-glare illumination, and for those that actually care, save endangered birds turtles and other species, preserve our dark skies, save the taxpayers over $1 million per year and be a good steward to our 'aina. Maui County can be a world leader in this field if they approve Enhanced Spectrum Limited lighting. The next step is to replace other poorly designed outdoor lighting."

He added that the San Jose lighting company can be reached at saveturtles@ecosciencelighting.com.

Caption: The Haleakala summit is one of the most coveted places on earth for ground-based telescopes "because of the remarkable clarity, dryness, stability of the air and its elevation, and absence of the lights of major cities." The dark-sky movement aims to keep it that way by calling for more responsible outdoor lighting practices, among other things.

 
 
 

 

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