Dark Skies Walk Brings Attention to Light Pollution in Salt Lake City

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(KCPW News) Despite clearing clouds after a stormy week, participants on a dark skies walk in Downtown Salt Lake City could hardly see the stars.

Leading the way, Bettymaya Foott of the Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative says it’s really a simple fix.

“Light pollution is a matter of lighting design, and the light just needs to be directed down where it’s needed and not up towards the sky where it’s obscuring our view of the stars,” Foott said.

Although Utah is home to nine designated dark sky parks, with Antelope Island recently joining the list, light pollution is prevalent in Salt Lake City. Outdoor lighting on streets and around large buildings – fixtures that are unshielded or bluish in color, such as LED lighting – are some of the worst contributors.

But Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at the University of Utah’s College of Architecture and Planning and co-director at the Consortium for Dark Sky Studies, says planners didn’t intend to shield the stars.

“The insidious way that we have lost our connection to the dark skies is an unintended consequence of trying to preserve safety,” Goldsmith said. “And now that there’s an awareness that we have, without really thinking about it, lost our dark skies, lighting contractors, lighting engineers, architects and people within the planning community are realizing this is what we’ve done — now what do we begin to do to mitigate that.”

Foott says the extra lighting impacts the circadian rhythm of biological organisms, disrupting the mating habits of insects and sleeping patterns in humans.

“Artificial light at night affects the production of melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates our circadian rhythm,” Foot said. “When we don’t produce this melatonin, we see an increase in diabetes, obesity, suppressed immune function, lethargy during the day, having a hard time sleeping, insomnia and lots of other effects.”

Along with health consequences, excessive lighting also takes a toll on taxpayers’ pocketbooks. Goldsmith cited the University of Utah as an example of a location with lighting beyond practicality. It takes money to keep the lights on, and to address the issues, such as air quality, affected by the extra energy consumption.

“When we start to really add up all the economic consequences associated with the disappearing dark, they follow the health sector, they follow the taxpayers and even individual property owners have to spend so much extra money on lighting that is not necessary to keep them safe,” Goldsmith said.

Foott, a Moab native, says the lack of stars in the city spurred her involvement in the Dark Sky movement, as she looked back fondly on starry nights.

“Every weekend night, I would sleep out on the trampoline with my girlfriends and look up at the stars and name them and try to imagine what it’s like up there,” Foott said. “I think my favorite memory is just really growing up with the stars and appreciating it as part of my life.”

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