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Blinded by the lights

As light pollution muddies stargazers' view of the night sky, an international effort takes aim at remedying the man-made problem


(Sky & Telescope Magazine Satellite Photo)

Astronomy professor Wendy Bauer pulls on a thick rope, opening to the night sky the huge, overhead dome of Wellesley College's Whitin Observatory. She aims the antique brass-and-mahogany telescope, twice as tall as she is, toward the opening. Then she climbs a rickety wooden ladder to look for Jupiter.

Other than her blue T-shirt, she could be taken for an astronomer in 1900, the year the observatory was built.

But there's another difference between then and now - the view. The stars at night are not so bright.

As development has come to the western suburbs, so has light pollution. And the change has occurred so quickly, local astronomers say, that there hardly is anywhere in Greater Boston that has escaped its drastic effect in recent years.

When Bauer arrived at Wellesley in 1979, she could see the Milky Way with her naked eye. No longer.

"I have to imagine it," she said. "You used to be able to point it out to students."

It's an effect we all can see but one the astronomers must grapple with every day. Wellesley College astrophysics major Amanda Zangari said one of the first things you learn in astronomy is how to orient yourself to the sky by looking for constellations - assuming you can find them.

"You can't see the Little Dipper here," she said. And the same goes for about half the constellations she should be able to spot; they are at least partially washed out by light pollution, she said.

By contrast, in Flagstaff, Ariz., you can see the Little Dipper from a Target parking lot because that state has in place regulations to restrict the spillover of man-made light, Zangari said.

Whitin Observatory engineer Stephen Slivan said he has to cherry-pick his research projects so as not to push the limits of what the sky will offer now or a year from now.

"I'm not using the full capability of the telescope because it's too light," he said. "It's very limiting, the kind of research you can do."

Wellesley's situation exemplifies what has become an international debate over what to do about the fading firmament. The International Dark-Sky Association, headquartered in Tucson, was incorporated in 1988 to spread the word about light pollution. Bauer, who describes herself as a not-very-active member, said lobbying against wasted light isn't antidevelopment because there are plenty of light fixtures available now that don't illuminate the sky. The trick is to increase public awareness.

Massachusetts is not at the forefront of the dark-skies cause. Several states, including Arizona, California, and Connecticut, have laws regulating light pollution - as does the Czech Republic and many parts of Canada.

Countless US towns and cities have taken on the issue. In Massachusetts, efforts at creating light-restricting legislation have failed repeatedly, but a handful of municipalities - including Cambridge, Gloucester, and Townsend - have enacted laws of their own.

At the Wellesley observatory, much of the light pollution pours in from Boston on one side and the Natick Collection mall on the other, Bauer said. But despite the college's use of "downlight" fixtures in parking lots and its "signature pedestrian lamp post" elsewhere, according to assistant vice president Peter Zuraw, its astronomers spar often to keep campus illumination directed at the ground, not the sky.

"We fight a constant battle," Bauer said.

Outdoor lighting for the new Natick Collection was selected to comply as much as possible with dark-sky preferences, according to Stephen Derdiarian, the landscape architect on the mall's recent expansion.

"It was very much on our radar," he said, adding that the light-pollution issue first emerged for him about six years on a commercial project in Weston.

On roadways and around parking areas, the mall installed light fixtures designed to limit light pollution, he said. The original Natick Mall used showbox light fixtures, which are gradually being replaced with newer types that scatter less light, he said.

The International Dark-Sky Association is working to create standards to guide communities seeking to reclaim the night sky. It is also drafting a light pollution regulation that could become part of the building code in 28 states, according to Leo Smith of Suffield, Conn., who sits on the association's board of directors.

And the Dark-Sky Association and the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America are developing a joint "Model Outdoor Lighting Ordinance" for municipalities interested in adopting antipollution regulations, he said.

Smith said the worst pollution in most cities and towns probably comes from street lighting, followed by commercial development, then residential development.

The International Dark-Sky Association promotes "full-cutoff" or "fully shielded" fixtures, which don't emit light above an imaginary horizontal line drawn from them.

"I would say, 10 years from now, that's the only kind of lighting that will go up," Smith said. "It doesn't make any sense to waste the energy."

The Light Pollution Science and Technology Institute in Thiene, Italy, estimates that light pollution's growth rate is as large as 5 to 10 percent a year both in the United States and Europe.

Gloucester resident Dr. Mario Motta, as an amateur astronomer, might have a special interest in reducing light pollution, but he said the general public also stands to benefit.

For taxpayers, the argument is easy because it's based on saving money, he said. Full-cutoff lighting fixtures don't have to cost more. And since they use less energy, by not sending light off in directions in which it isn't needed, such fixtures generate lower energy bills, he said. This should appeal to environmentalists, Motta said, because less energy used means a decrease in the global warming threat.

But Motta is also serious about the stars. He said he has built the largest residential observatory in the country and moved to Gloucester three years ago partly for the better stargazing. In April, he helped to successfully lobby the Gloucester City Council to adopt a local light-pollution ordinance. Now, all new street lighting and all new commercial and multifamily residential lighting has to be of the star-friendly, full-cutoff variety.

Kelly Beatty, executive editor of the Cambridge-based Sky & Telescope magazine, said large commercial developments aren't the biggest problem because they usually employ lighting engineers who are well-versed in light-pollution issues. The biggest light-wasters, he said, are the small mom-and-pop stores, which, because of concerns about security, tend to drastically overlight parking lots.

A bill submitted by state Representative James Marzilli Jr., an Arlington Democrat, that would require any state-funded project to use only fully shielded outdoor light fixtures has failed to gain passage by the Legislature.

The state Highway Department has expressed concerns about the cost of providing more lights along highways if forced to use the fully shielded lights, Beatty said. But he said lighting professionals increasingly agree that highways don't need to be lighted so brightly, if at all.

"Your eyes are perfectly capable, especially in suburban areas [where] the speed limits are 25 to 30 miles per hour - there's virtually no need for street lights there at all," he said.

Street lights are needed where cars and pedestrians interact, as in downtown Boston, Beatty said. But everywhere else headlights can do the job.

Lower light is actually better for your health and safer on roadways, particularly for older drivers, said Motta, a cardiologist and vice president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. "That's the primary reason people don't drive well at night - because of badly engineered lights," Motta said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

Builders have been making their way to the dark side, but only recently, said Weymouth architect Ronald Boretti.

"It's becoming mainstream in the site-design world, but it's coming on pretty quickly," said Boretti, who received an award from the Dark-Sky Association in January for his efforts to limit light pollution. "We're going from a point of zero awareness to a reasonable amount."

His firm, Cubellis, with offices in Boston and along the East Coast, is now incorporating the preferred light fixtures into its best practices, he said, even though a year and a half ago he wouldn't have known about the issue.

"It's pretty much as easy to design and use the right fixtures as it is to design and use the wrong fixtures," Boretti said. "It's about awareness."

Steve Beckwith, an amateur astronomer who lives in Bolton, said he definitely can see less from his backyard observatory than he could when he moved to town 14 years ago. But Bolton is a decent place to stargaze, and he has seen impressive skies over places like the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He worries about the children, and even adults, who are missing out.

"There are a lot of wondrous things you can see out there," Beckwith said. "It brings people a little bit closer to nature and puts a little awe in their mind. I miss it when it's gone, but at least I've seen it, and there are going to be people out there who have never, ever seen it at all."

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@globe.com.

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