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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Dec. 9, 2023

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Nevada communities combat light pollution

Excess brightness shown to be bad for humans’ health

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The Milky Way can be viewed in the night sky within the Boulder City, Nevada limits, as seen on Thursday, July 20, 2023.
The Milky Way can be viewed in the night sky within the Boulder City, Nevada limits, as seen on Thursday, July 20, 2023. (Daniel Pearson/Las Vegas Review-Journal/TNS) (Daniel Pearson/Las Vegas Review-Journal) Photo Gallery

Las Vegas is a city that never sleeps, and neither do its glittering lights.

It’s home to the brightest light beam in the world atop the Luxor hotel/casino and, now, the biggest and brightest sphere on the planet.

The Sphere gave locals a preview about what it can do on the Fourth of July, showing off its bright lights with displays of fireworks, the flag, the moon and even an eyeball.

But the hype surrounding the newest addition to the Las Vegas skyline is bringing a lesser-known issue to the forefront of people’s minds: light pollution.

What is light pollution?

Light pollution is the excessive or poor use of artificial outdoor light, according to National Geographic.

Kevin Swartz, vice president of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society, says light pollution is a big problem in the valley, and that The Sphere isn’t quite helping.

“It wastes tons of energy, and it creates health concerns,” he said. “It also has a large impact on wildlife. That grasshopper invasion we had back in 2019? Grasshoppers are attracted to light, so they just flocked to where they saw the most light, and that was the Strip.”

According to a study conducted in 2021, global light pollution has increased by at least 49 percent over the past 25 years. University of Nevada Reno professor Jenny Ouyang told the Review-Journal that by 2025, 80 percent of the world’s population will live in light-polluted cities.

“Plenty of studies show that excess light pollution can cause hormone-related cancers, immune deficiencies and melatonin deficiencies,” Ouyang said.

Light pollution is just like any other pollutant in the environment but is severely understudied, according to Ouyang. It’s a relatively new concept about which researchers are still learning more.

In an essay for AmericanScientist magazine, Ouyang warned that as urbanization continues to increase, “there are more and more of us who will never see the Milky Way, who will never look to the stars to ponder our place amongst the galaxies.”

But the increased awareness of the issue of light pollution has also introduced more people to the concept of dark-sky communities.

Dark-sky communities

The International Dark-Sky Association is the recognized authority on light pollution, and the leading organization working to combat light pollution worldwide.

The organization also designates official dark-sky communities around the world — cities or towns that are dedicated to preserving the night sky, through education and the implementation of special lighting ordinances.

Nevada has two dark-sky designations: Great Basin National Park and Massacre Rim Park, both in the northern part of the state, away from the lights of Las Vegas.

One way that Great Basin has stayed in compliance with International Dark-Sky Association rules is by changing its outdoor lighting fixtures to red light.

“We have red lights that cover the walkways and red lights for the bathrooms,” said Bradley Mills, Great Basin’s lead astronomy ranger. “We make sure our lights are on timers or motion detectors, or pointed specifically at the ground so there is no light residue in the sky.”

Many people go out to Great Basin to see the starry night sky that they can’t experience in their urbanized cities, according to Great Basin Superintendent James Woolsey.

“In general, dark night sky tourism has picked up for us,” Woolsey said. “Fifteen to 20 percent of all visitors come for our dark skies. We measure this by how many of our visitors come to evening festivals built around stargazing.”

One of those evening events is the Star Train, held in collaboration with the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, which takes tourists on a guided train ride through the park to view the starry sky.

Mills recalled one tour of around 120 people, during which only one person raised their hand when asked if they’d ever seen the Milky Way before that night.

“It’s an amazing place. You can look up on any night and see the tremendous beauty,” Mills said. “I love being able to share it with everyone.

“So many people who come here have never seen the Milky Way or the night sky, and so when they look through our telescopes at the sky, we hear a lot of ‘Ohs’ and ‘wows.’”

But even Great Basin isn’t immune to light pollution. From some areas of the park, city lights from Salt Lake City and Las Vegas can be seen off in the distance, according to Mills.

But now, one other community, much closer to Las Vegas, is in the process of trying to become a dark-sky community.

Darker skies ahead

Boulder City has been working in conjunction with the Nevada Department of Outdoor Recreation to retrofit its outdoor lighting to get closer to compliance with International Dark-Sky Association guidelines.

Ashley Pipkin, an outdoor recreation planner for the National Park Service and a community science fellow with Boulder City, said community members had voiced concerns about the city’s lights.

Pipkin says it was great to hear a community caring about the issue.

Boulder City Utilities Director Joe Stubitz said in a statement that the city was excited to partner with the National Park Service and the Nevada Division of Outdoor Recreation to receive a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The grant was able to help Boulder City purchase lighting that is friendlier to the night sky, according to Pipkin.

The lights that Boulder City is planning on introducing have a warm color temperature, which produces less glare, is less harmful to wildlife and is better for the elderly.

While the glow of city lights is always going to be a staple in Las Vegas, Ouyang has said that light pollution isn’t all doom and gloom, and that there is a simple fix that everyone can do: Remember to turn off your lights.

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