Dark skies: connected to the past and future

Gary S Zientara demonstrates how he finds stars with his telescope in this Taos News file photo. (Photo By Katharine Egli, The Taos News)

In Taos, we enjoy darker skies than many places on earth. Growing up seeing stars and planets as familiar landmarks or coming here and glimpsing the Milky Way for the first time can bring feelings of wonder and awe.

Our dark skies have been recognized as a cultural and historical legacy worth preserving. In 1999, the State of New Mexico passed the New Mexico Night Sky Protection Act. Several years later, both Taos County and the Town of Taos followed suit, passing ordinances protecting the nighttime sky.

The primary purpose of all of these laws is to promote energy efficiency, reduce light pollution and protect the dark skies for future generations. The ordinances specify that exterior lights be directed downward, so that they don’t throw off glare into the night sky or shine onto neighboring properties.

The ordinances are typically enforced at a time of new development or on a complaint basis. The county ordinance requires that when outside lighting needs to be replaced, the new fixtures comply with dark skies requirements. The Town ordinance says that all exterior fixtures must meet the ordinance within seven years of its passage – a benchmark reached in 2014. Town planning director Louis Fineberg said “In the two years that I have been working for the Town, I have received one complaint regarding a dark skies violation. When notified of the violation, the owner immediately corrected the problem. As with other types of code enforcement violation, most violators don’t understand they are violating the ordinance and typically correct any issues without opposition.”

Impacts of light pollution

A short film made for use in planetariums called “Losing the Dark,” points out that “the rhythms of day and night are embedded in the biological make up of all life.” Until just over a century ago, the skies were dark and now light pollution from cities can be seen even in the wilderness. The brightest glare comes from street lights and is visible from space.

According to the International Dark-Sky Association, humans need darkness to make melatonin which has antioxidant properties to induce sleep, boost the immune system, lower cholesterol and help support the functioning of glands and organs. Artificial light can disrupt the natural cycles of sleeping and waking and we lose the benefits of sleeping in true darkness. Blue light like that found in LED lights and computer screens can be particularly harmful.

The light in the skies disrupts the growth cycle of plants and confuses wildlife. Sea turtles have mistaken the glow of lights for the reflection of ocean waters and become lost while searching for the sea.  “From a wildlife standpoint, light pollution disrupts the biorhythms of nocturnal creatures, especially birds, and causes deaths,” said local astronomer Gary Zientara. “This detracts from our ecosystem and reduces diversity.”
Zientara said that there is an easy fix that would solve the problem “overnight.” Although he advocates turning off lights, where that is not possible, he said that shielding lights so that they cast light downward, keeps unwanted light out of the night sky. “It is that simple,” he said.

For astronomy, Zientara noted that dark skies are essential. He has taken pictures of galaxies 50 million light years away from his observatory in Angel Fire, photos that wouldn’t be possible in areas of the country that have more light pollution.

Zientara said that when we gaze into the night skies, we look at history and the future as we watch stars be born, live and die.

Dark skies past and present

Ancient peoples watched the skies, naming constellations and attributing meaning to the unusual celestial occurrences. At Chaco Canyon, near the Peñasco Blanco great house, there is a panel that contains a star, a crescent moon, and a hand print. Astronomers theorize that the star may symbolize the supernova explosion in the Crab Nebula that occurred in July 1054 C.E. The supernova was so bright, it could be seen during the day. Nearby, there is a petroglyph that shows three concentric circles with red flames trailing behind that may depict Halley’s Comet, which appeared a few years later.

Through the National Park Service, programs on astronomy past and present are now offered at Chaco Canyon. The park has taken steps to reduce its light pollution and has been recognized as an International Dark Sky Park.

The Dark Sky Finder app allows you to find darkest skies near you. Not surprisingly, our brightest night skies here are found near the town of Taos. Darkness increases as you move away from town, especially to areas west of the Rio Grande and north toward the Colorado state line.

What you can do

To make the skies darker near your house, the simplest thing to do is turn off unnecessary exterior lights. You will be able to see more stars and also help the wildlife thrive. If you keep the inside of your house dark at night, you may improve your own sleep cycle. Where exterior lights are necessary, direct them downward and provide full or partial shielding as required by the town and county ordinance.

For more information

For more information on dark skies visit, darkskies.org. To find out what is going on in the night sky, visit Zientara’s website at mountsangreobservatory.com. To learn more about the astronomy programming at Chaco Canyon: nps.gov/chcu/planyourvisit/nightsky.htm.

In our own backyard, we can see the Perseid meteor shower coming up July 13 through Aug. 26, with the peak between August 11-13. During the peak nights, you may see as many as 50 meteors per hour.