Connecticut's Night Skies Are Fading From View Due to Light Pollution
Bob Crelin took this unique 35mm film photo of his nephew gazing at the summer milky way in Vermont. the image is a single exposure using two different focus settings during a long exposure. crelin used two tall ladders, a large black cloth, two filtered flashlights and a barn-door camera mount and timer to capture the moment.
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Throughout our state and much of the Northeast, light pollution has encroached upon the darkness, turning what was once an ink-black canvas dotted with countless bright stars to a chalkboard-grey, sparsely starred expanse. The ramifications of that change extend far beyond the frustration of backyard stargazers. The loss of the dark night sky to excess outdoor lighting has implications for energy policy, safety and security, animal behavior and human health.
Of course, there’s no turning back to the preelectric-light era; the night sky will never again be as dark as it was a century ago. But a handful of advocates and activists across the state have worked for the past two decades to prevent further erosion of—and to evenpartially restore—what’s come to be known as the “dark sky.” Their efforts have placed Connecticut among the leaders in the international initiative to salvage our clear view of the cosmos.
Bob Crelin remembers the summer night in 1994 when he took his 4-year-old daughter to their Branford backyard for her first stargazing session. “I had remembered so clearly when I was a child, seeing the Milky Way,” Crelin says. “It wasn’t necessarily something you had to look for. It was obvious, a misty path across the sky. I was fully expecting I could have that same experience and share it with her. But it had drastically changed.” Crelin and his daughter couldn’t see the Milky Way at all.
“That got me wondering, wow, what could have happened?” he says. “The term ‘light pollution’ wasn’t being thrown around at the time, but it was pretty easy to figure out that human-made electric light was contributing” to the loss of the night sky.” (The 2011 documentary The City Dark shines light on that phenomenon.)
Not everyone endorses the term “light pollution,” which to some implies that light itself is a pollutant. Still, semantics aside, it’s clear to Crelin and others that excess light from thousands of fixtures floods the sky at night, causing glare, glow and other phenomena that are not just unsightly but potentially dangerous. The biology of the human eye dictates that we can only see well at one end of the light-dark spectrum at a time. Faced with bright light, we can’t see what lurks in the dark. And when we’re driving in the dark but suddenly confronted with bright light, we can’t see well, either.
Crelin, an entrepreneur, musical instrument designer and author (who has written two children’s books about the night sky) decided to educate himself about nighttime lighting. He researched light properties and light fixtures. He learned how misdirected and poorly shielded fixtures spread light in all directions, effectively blinding any creature that comes near, and how aiming light downward and shielding it directs light where it’s needed—and not where it’s not.
Crelin attended star-watching gatherings around Branford, handing out simple postcards that people could sign and send to the planning and zoning commission requesting restrictions on the use of outdoor lights in their community. Only a handful of the cards he distributed ever reached lawmakers, Crelin acknowleges, but the process of educating the public was underway. Branford P&Z chair Shirley Rasmussen was soon on his side.
“She was great, so receptive,” Crelin recalls. “She let me write a lot of the language of the law.” In 1997, Branford enacted sky-friendly regulations for outdoor lighting. Other towns soon followed suit.
Leo Smith of Suffield has been passionately working toward a darker night sky for decades. A longtime member of the International Dark-Sky Association, he serves in several leadership roles in the organization. Just about anyone interested in dark-sky issues in Connecticut will name Smith as the driving force behind the state’s adoption of legislation regulating outdoor lighting.