One of the most important events that drove me to study astronomy at university was an experience I had with my first really dark sky. It was on my last year school trip to a remote location when I chanced to look up. The starry splendour left me breathless. I was meeting the rest of the universe for the first time. It was a great shame that I had to wait until grade 8 to see the Milky Way for the first time. It does not have to be this way, not even for urban dwellers like me. City lights are unavoidable, but they can be made in such a way to protect the dark sky. The purpose of a city light, is after all, is to illuminate the ground for cars and pedestrians. Illuminating the sky is pointless, and a waste of electricity and money.
Fortunately the Royal astronomical Society has set up a committee to protect the night sky for sky-watchers. The Light Pollution Abatement Program set up by the RASC is trying to raise awareness of the effects of light pollution on the night sky, on city budgets, and on wildlife. The benefits of controlling light pollution are energy savings, better safety at night, and wildlife protection. Even though UNESCO has declared the night sky and important heritage, the night sky is not regulated.
The Royal Astronomical Society has worked to set up several dark sky preserves. The Cypress Hills dark sky preserve is the largest in the world. Beaver Hills is also a dark sky preserve and Grasslands National Park is next in line. It is not necessary to leave the city to see the dark sky. The Hampton Village project in Saskatoon, is a successful application of dark sky compliance lighting. The only complaint came from city workers who could not tell if a light had burned out without standing directly beneath it. In November 2007 light pollution was considered for a provincial mandate.
Unfortunately a rural casino has become the worst light polluting establishment. The Dakota dunes casino has a “teepee of light” pointing straight up into the sky. The Saskatchewan light pollution abatement committee and the residents of Pike Lake have all filed complaints against the casino. The casino, unfortunately, is placed out of town within sight of a Provincial Park, and three nature conservation areas. The Las Vegas style lighting is completely out of place in rural Saskatchewan. And it is stealing the night sky away from sky-watchers, not to mention the environmental damage.
Light pollution is not considered a pollutant under current environmental guidelines. However the effects of these lights on birds and other nocturnal animals is well known. Bright lights can stun or disorient flying animals. Birds are extremely vulnerable at night, unnecessarily lit office towers, television towers, or casino lights can cause bird death through collision or exhaustion. Conservationists in concert with dark sky groups have launched a campaign to raise awareness of the danger night lights have for birds. The group, Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), is trying to encourage the public to turn off unnecessary lights. The group estimates that fatal light attraction is the third most frequent cause of bird deaths behind collisions and predation by cats.
Clearly the current environmental guidelines are inadequate. Under the current system Saskatchewan Environment has failed to protect migratory birds and other animals attracted to the lights. The Light Pollution Abatement Committee needs help. Please sign their petition. Or even better, write to your local MP,MLA, SIGA, or the FSIN. Remember the night sky belongs to us all. Protect it.