New Mexico has beautiful skies. Vibrant sunrises, colorful sunsets and great views nearly 360 days a year. What can we see at night?
The dark-sky movement is a campaign to reduce light pollution, defined as unwanted or excessive artificial light. Astronomers are concerned about the sky glow pollution and their ability to view celestial objects. Light pollution affects humans and the world we live in. There are things we can do to reduce light pollution and promote dark skies.
We recently changed our clocks to spring forward, yet it takes time for our bodies to adjust. Humans have a biological clock or a circadian rhythm, meaning a sleep-wake pattern governed by the day-night cycle. Artificial light at night can affect that cycle.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “melatonin is a hormone in your body that plays a role in sleep. The production and release of melatonin in the brain is connected to time of day, increasing when it’s dark and decreasing when it’s light.” Nighttime exposure to artificial light suppresses melatonin production.
Blue light is emitted from our phones and computer screens and can affect our sleep. Blue light can also come from light bulbs. Harsh outdoor lighting can create difficulty seeing contrasts – think about the effects of an approaching car with bright lights on, making it difficult to see.
Plants and animals
Plants and animals depend on Earth’s daily cycle of light and dark rhythm to govern life-sustaining behaviors such as reproduction, nourishment, sleep and protection from predators.
Nocturnal or night time animals sleep during the day and are active at night. Artificial light alters their nighttime view by turning night into day. Think about a nocturnal house at the zoo. The building is isolated from outside light. In our own state, consider the animals who hunt at night and those who use the dark to avoid being prey.
Many insects are drawn to light, for some a fatal attraction.
What can you do?
To reduce the harm in your home, choose the right light bulb and adjust device screen light. Look at the packages for CFL and LED light bulbs for the color temperature information. Use low-color temperature light sources for interior and exterior light when you replace bulbs. Assess your home to consider what you can improve.
Only have lights on when needed, and only where they are needed. No brighter than necessary. Use a timer or motion detection devices to help reduce the use. You can save on your energy bill and help with the dark sky.
Solar lights to mark paths are okay since their light is low lumens; shine the light down. Use only the number of lights needed.
If you are building or replacing lighting, do your research. The International Dark-Sky Association has a Fixture Seal of Approval Program, darksky.org/our-work/lighting/lighting-for-industry/fsa/. Many of the older lights shine 180 degrees, shining skyward. Look for lights with a shield that directs the lights downward.
Night sky protection
The N.M. Night Sky Protection Act (NSPA) was signed in to law by Gov. Gary Johnson in 1999 and went into effect January 1, 2000. The purpose is to regulate outdoor night lighting fixtures to preserve and enhance the state’s dark sky while promoting safety, conserving energy and preserving the environment for astronomy. To read the law, see darkskynm.org/lightinglaws.html. Compliance with the NAPS is required by the N.M. Electrical Code. Enforcement is the responsibility of each county and municipality. The website also has links to county and municipal regulations throughout the state. As the NSPA is over 20 years old, look for current information on lighting for best practices. Several N.M. communities are updating their local ordinances.
• A newly formed local chapter of NM Dark Sky and a website are launching soon, newmexicodarksky.org.
• The Albuquerque Astronomical Society, taas.org, is one of the largest and most active astronomy clubs. See the website for information and events to enjoy the night sky.
• New Mexico has 13 astronomical observatories that have telescopes used for astronomy research. Not all observatories may be open to the public, go-astronomy.com/observatories-state.php?State=NM.
• View a light pollution map at lightpollutionmap.info.
Dark skies sites
• Capulin Volcano National Monument
• Clayton Lake State Park
• Chaco Culture National Historic Park
• Fort Union National Monument
• Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument
• Cosmic Campground
• Valles Caldera National Preserve
• Valle del Oro National Wildlife Refuge
• El Morro National Monument
Why it matters
Without the natural night sky could we or would we have:
• Navigated the globe?
• Discovered planets?
• Walked on the moon?
• Learned of our expanding universe?
• Made a wish on a shooting star?
Enjoy your star gazing!
Sources: darksky.org/about/ www.education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/light-pollution/ newmexico.org/darkskies/#new-mexico-magazine