The University of Utah
College of Architecture + Planning

Where has the starry night sky gone?

Where has the starry night sky gone?

Where has the starry night sky gone?

International Dark Sky Association defines light pollution as a side effect of industrial civilization with interior and exterior building lighting, streetlights, illuminated sporting venues, and many more contributing to the pollution; therefore light pollution is a matter of design. In the majority of places, humans and animals never experience actual darkness, ever. “More than 80% of the planet’s land areas and 99% of the population of the United States and Europe live under skies so blotted with manmade light that the Milky Way has become virtually invisible,” according National Geographic writer Michelle Donahue.[1] In many cases, this invisibility creates a sense of our own alienations among the galaxy. In 1994, the LA Earthquake struck at 4:30 AM. This blacked out the whole city, leaving behind a dark sky full of bright celestial bodies that had up until then been hidden by the unshielded city lights. When residents peeked outside, they were able to see something they never had before, the Milky Way above them. To so many of these urbanites, this was unknown, and frightening. Residents called The Griffith Observatory and 911 to report a “strange silvery cloud” in the sky. They were seeing our own galaxy for the first time. [2]

What steps are we taking to resolve light pollution?

According to Stephen Goldsmith, associate professor in the College of Architecture + Planning and director of the Bachelor of Urban Ecology Program in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah, the U is the first in the academic realm to take steps to research how we, as urbanites, can have the magical experience of viewing the Milky Way right in our own backyard. Goldsmith along with Bettymaya Foott, a U environmental studies, honors and urban ecology alumna, have taken on this task with many collaborators from the University community and the community at large.

Foott’s Honors Thesis focused on looking at Dark Skies from the University of Utah campus. Foott was introduced to light pollution in Goldsmith’s Design Ecologies course and this stemmed her inspiration for her Honors Thesis. She received a SCIF Grant to work with Bill Leach, an energy manager at the University of Utah, to install six dark-skies-friendly lights in Fort Douglas. Foott also organized a showing of The City Dark, a documentary about light pollution, with a panel discussion afterwards. Foott’s efforts with the Dark Skies caught the attention of Goldsmith, and at this showing, Goldsmith and Janet Muir, co-founder of the Ogden Valley Chapter of the International Dark-Sky Association, connected and started making a plan to bring dark sky studies to the University of Utah in a much bigger way. Muir seeded the idea to have a consortium for dark skies at the U; this consortium would function like a research center, allowing collaborations from all across campus and the Utah community.

This would be the first academic center dedicated to the study of the night sky. David Kieda, professor in Physics and Astronomy and dean of the Graduate School, and are co-directors of The Consortium for Dark Sky Studies at the University of Utah with the following mission:  The Consortium for Dark Sky Studies (CDSS) is dedicated to the discovery, development, communication, and application of knowledge across a wide range of disciplines and professional fields pertaining to the quality of night skies, growing light pollution and the varied human, animal, and environmental responses to the “disappearing dark.” The Consortium for the Dark Sky Studies collaborates with the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative, which Bettymaya Foott is the coordinator. The Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative focuses on a specific region within Utah to preserve the disappearing dark. Goldsmith said, “Bettymaya is arguably one of the most knowledgeable about the disappearing dark.”

Where are we going next?

Goldsmith and Foott not only want to focus on the Colorado Plateau but as many places in Utah and the surrounding areas as possible to assist these communities in making their own efforts to preserve the night sky. Muir has helped with the Northern Utah region; this collaboration is through Ogden Valley Starry Nights. Recently, there have been collaborative efforts in Ketchum, Idaho, which will become the first International Dark Sky Reserve in America. While there are many initiatives by cities, like Flagstaff, Arizona—the first nationally declared dark sky city, the Ketchum Reserve is taking this initiative to a whole new level. This reserve will encompass the city and the surrounding region as its core, and it will also include an additional surrounding area to create a buffer. This buffer ensures that the region under protection stays dark, as light pollution is a transboundary issue.

Moab, Utah has been a focus of dark skies efforts as well. Nathan Jellen and Adam Dalton, Master of City & Metropolitan Planning students at the University of Utah, spent this past summer working with Moab city with Zacharia Levine, a doctoral student in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning and the Grand County Community development director, to take an inventory of all of Moab’s exterior lighting.

Jellen and Dalton took an inventory of over 2,000 fixtures in the city and the county and presented their findings to the Moab City Council, along with suggestions on how to develop a lighting ordinance, which is continuing to gain momentum. They are also helping Moab submit an inquiry to become a Dark Sky Community. While Jellen and Dalton were in the area they also took inventories in the communities of Bluff, Helper, and Torrey to help start these communities on the path to having dark sky designation. Goldsmith’s urban ecology workshop course has also been taking surveys in Bryce City for residents and visitors to judge interest in night sky conservation.

How can you get involved?

The Consortium is a resource on campus for students who are interested in the academic study of light pollution. This is an interdisciplinary topic that effects human health, ecology, tourism, astronomy, architecture, multi-disciplinary design, city & metropolitan planning and many more. The Consortium aims to assist students with information and a pool of supporters willing to help as they study their own take on how we can preserve the dark skies. Jamie Heyman, an intern with The Consortium of Dark Sky Studies and current honors scholar urban ecology student, is a great example of this. She recently presented at the Muslim Heritage Festival about dark skies and what The Consortium is working on in the community.

Students are also encouraged to volunteer with the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative and The Consortium for Dark Sky Studies for hands-on involvement. The Consortium holds community events such as the Jane Jacobs Walks at Night coordinated by urban ecology alumna, Katherine Nix, where attendees learn how the dark sky can be observed in our community. Foott held the first Dark Skies Photo Workshop on October 20 at Antelope Island. This event sold out and was a “great collaboration of art, experiential education, and dark sky advocacy,” according to Foott.

In November 2018, The Consortium for Dark Sky Studies will be hosting the International Artificial Light at Night (ALAN) Conference that will be held right after the International Dark-Sky Association General Conference at Snowbird Ski Resort. Student volunteers are needed and will be offered special discounted pricing for conference ticketing. Goldsmith aims to offer a Dark Sky Minor to students in all disciplines across campus that will be housed in the College of Architecture + Planning. He is hoping this will be up and running by fall 2018; Goldsmith is in the final stages of his proposal to the W.M. Keck Foundation to push this initiative forward.

Goldsmith believes that the dark sky minor would be of great benefit to future employers to have employees who understand how to manage lighting in and around a building to be within dark sky policy. This will not only allow students to understand dark sky policies, but they will also understand how to dose lighting correctly. “When we dose lighting correctly it reduces energy costs. When we dose lighting correctly it improves air quality and improves safety,” says Goldsmith. The dark skies minor will not only allow students to preserve the disappearing dark, but will also preserve the human spirit with a sense of awe when looking at a night sky filled with stars.

To get involved with preserving the night sky, one can become a member of The Consortium for Dark Skies by emailing Bettymaya Foott at You can also become a member of your local International Dark-Sky Association Chapter. Ask your city or county about existing lighting ordinances that help protect the night sky in your area. In your own home, make sure that all your lights are fully shielded and not excessively bright for the task at hand. Fully shielding fixtures can eliminate light pollution – so the light will shine down onto the task at hand and not into your neighbor’s window or up into the sky. Components of light pollution can include glare (excessive brightness that causes visual discomfort), skyglow (brightening of the night sky over inhabited areas), light trespass (light falling where it is not intended or needed).
Foott has offered the following quick tips to help with light pollution to implement today:

  1. Put lights only WHERE you need them. Excessive light causes light pollution.
  2. Use lights only WHEN you need to. Use motion sensors to turn lights on and off as needed. This improves security and reduces light pollution.
  3. SHIELD lights and direct them downward. Use full cutoff light fixtures or point lights downward. Lights can also be retrofitted with simple metal shrouds.
  4. Select bulbs with WARMER COLORS. Consider using amber or yellow colored lights to minimize sky brightness.
  5. Use LESS light. An efficient, shielded light fixture can use a smaller wattage bulb and still be effective.
  6. Select the most ENERGY EFFICIENT lamps and fixtures. Replacing poor quality outdoor lights with efficient fixtures saves energy and money.

Thankfully, light pollution is reversible and can be fixed; Goldsmith and Foott are optimistic that The Consortium for Dark Sky Studies will bring more awareness to the disappearing dark and encourage our community to start taking steps to bring back the stars.

Written by Bridget Miller
Photo & Light Pollution Information by Bettymaya Foott