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Red Sky in Morning, Sailor Take Warning; Dark Sky at Night, Everyone’s Delight.

Old school illumination.

Old school illumination.

Ever notice the skinny lampposts across campus with the bulbous glass bowls on top?  Ever wonder how well they do their job (let alone who picked out such an ordinary-looking piece of hardware that fits with exactly none of the various architectural styles on campus)?  Well, I did, after noticing that they were dropping like flies, and sleek, black downlights were popping up in their places.

According to Archie Phillips, architect for the U’s Campus Design and Construction department, the dreadful-looking fixtures (my adjective, not Archie’s), affectionately referred to as the “lollipops,” probably date from the 1950s, are inefficient, costly, tricky to maintain, and—worst of all—direct the bulk of their light up into the night sky.  There are two problems with that.  First, they do not perform their primary purpose, which is pathway illumination.  Second, their upward glare contributes to light pollution, a serious yet easily corrected environmental hazard.

I first learned about light pollution on a visit to Swaner Nature Preserve in Park City for a star gazing party (highly recommended event; check their webpage for calendar:  www.swanerecocenter.org).  Even though Park City has a “dark sky” zoning ordinance, I was amazed to see the disturbing amount of ambient light coming from uncovered house windows, McDonald’s signs and even car headlights that reached well beyond the half mile we’d walked into the meadow for observation.  Not only does light overflow obscure our ability to see the wonders of the night sky, it messes up migration and mating habits of nocturnal creatures.  Who knew?

Well, lots of folks it turns out, including the astronomers in the U’s physics department.  They were one of the first groups to take aim at the “lollipops” because their light interferes with viewing from the roof-top observatory (another aside for more fun stuff to do:  web.utah.edu/astro/).  They even offered to paint the tops of the globes to stop the light leaks. 

Shine a light on me.

Shine a light on me.

Fortunately, that stopgap solution was not needed. And, I learned, the U has instituted a new campus standard.  Any lights on campus—new or replaced—must be dark sky compliant.  Hence the new fixtures seen around South Physics, the Field House, College of Law, UNMH and probably to a walkway near you soon.  “Seen” is relative.  The color black was chosen for the new fixtures so that poles and lamps would better blend into landscape and architecture.

In addition to directing light down, where it’s needed, optics with metal halide bulbs appear much brighter, and the posts can be set further apart.  The bulbs last longer, and when the next generation of LED bulbs is used for replacements, they’ll last 3-4 times longer. The fixtures fit on existing poles, and are also capable of working on either of the two voltage systems that run the electrical grid on campus, eliminating one more headache as the U operations strive to become evermore environmentally sound and sustainable.

You can learn more about the issues and solutions to light pollution from the International Dark-Sky Association and New England Light Pollution Advisory Group www.darksky.org and www.cfa.harvard.edu/nelpag/nelpagphilos.html.)