Utah is ready for its ‘dark sky’ moment as tourists leave the crowds behind to see the Milky Way

Utah has 24 locations, from national parks to small towns, where light pollution is at a minimum.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Milky Way is partially obscured by heavy smoke, pushed in by the California and Oregon fires as as seen on Sunday, Aug. 8, 2019 at Dinosaur National Monument.

On a cloudless night, how much of the sky can you see?

For Utahns and tourists who seek out the state’s designated “dark sky” locations, quite a lot.

“It never ceases to amaze me, when I’m down in Canyonlands or Capitol Reef, when you can see the Milky Way and you really see just the incredible majesty of space and the sky,” said Lindsie Smith, director of the Salt Lake County-operated Clark Planetarium.

All of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks, plus 19 other sites around the state, have been recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association as places where human-made light sources are at their minimum. In those places — more than any other state in the union — people can glimpse the night sky as it was seen before industrialization and urban life obscured the view.

People have become more aware of the dark-sky movement in the past few years, Smith said. That recognition is partly out of concern over the dangers of light pollution — human-made light bleeding into the sky.

Because of light pollution, Smith said, 80% of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way when they look up at night. The glare of artificial light drowns out the natural light of all but a few stars.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Artificial light ‘pollutes on both ends’

According to author and dark-sky advocate Michael Marlin, such light pollution “pollutes on both ends. It pollutes when it’s being made, through whatever fossil fuels you’re burning. Then it pollutes the night sky with light leaking out to where it doesn’t need to go.”

Take a look at satellite images of cities at night, Marlin said. “Any light you see is light that is not properly aimed.”

Light pollution, Smith said, can have adverse effects on people and animals.

With humans, she said, “our serotonin is regulated by our circadian rhythm, and having too much light really messes with our biology and our internal clocks.”

Some animals, Smith added, rely on seasonally adjusted lights to know when it’s time to mate, so artificial light “can affect when they’re having their offspring.”

Birds, especially, “are drawn to buildings that are lit up at night,” Smith said. “So when they’re migrating, they can’t find their way.”

Light pollution doesn’t affect all neighborhoods equally, said Daniel Mendoza, director of the University of Utah’s Dark Skies Studies program, which is offered as a minor by the College of Architecture + Planning’s Department of City & Metropolitan Planning.

“In some of the lower-income areas, there are predominantly blue lights, and brighter lights,” Mendoza said. He points to the difference between the warmer, yellowish streetlights in, for example, Salt Lake City’s wealthy Avenues neighborhood and the harsher, brighter lights in some areas on the city’s west side, such as Glendale.

Brighter lights, which add more blue light to the spectrum, “affect your circadian rhythm,” Mendoza said. “It actually affects your ability to fall asleep.”

Residents of lower-income neighborhoods tend to be more exposed to the brighter lighting, Mendoza said, because they often are outside more — taking public transit, or walking, or riding bicycles — and not driving cars, whose windows filter out the blue light. Also, he said, people in those neighborhoods are more likely to be working evening or night shifts, so they’re commuting when those streetlights are lit.

Even the smog plays favorites. “The west side of Salt Lake City generally has worse air quality; the inversions are a little bit worse there,” Mendoza said. “Because of that, they have even less of a view of the stars than if you live in, say, Park City or even in the upper Avenues. … These kids are growing up [on the west side] without seeing any of this.”

The recent onslaught of smoke across Utah blown from wildfires in California and Oregon was, oddly enough, more democratic. The smoke, which turned Wasatch Front skies gray by day and orange at sunset, interfered with dark-sky viewing at sites east of the city — such as Rockport State Park in Peoa and Dinosaur National Monument in Vernal.

Money in the Milky Way

A view of the Milky Way also is becoming a lure for tourists, which can help the economy of towns near dark-sky locations. “They end up spending a lot of money in the communities in which they are staying,” Smith said.

Helper, in Carbon County, is one of two Utah towns that carry the “dark-sky community” label. Michelle Goldsmith, a member of Helper’s City Council, said the designation has “given us another avenue to bring people to come and visit.”

In the state’s other “dark-sky community,” in Torrey, businesses have found ways to cater to tourists wanting to see the night sky, said Mickey Wright, secretary of the Torrey Dark Sky Committee, a volunteer group that helps promote the Wayne County town’s dark-sky initiatives.

Wright said a recreational vehicle park in Torrey, which is near the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park, has had nine tour groups this season visiting to see the dark skies. Guide companies in the area conduct stargazing tours, complete with a telescope, he said.

In his book, “AstroTourism,” Marlin writes about how a handful of popular destinations, he said, “are being trampled to death by tourists.” Dark-sky locations, he added, create a “kind of tourism [that] helps spread out the footprint.”

Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said that’s something her agency tries to encourage.

Promoting dark-sky locations, Varela said, is a means of “distributing visitation, getting people off the beaten path, finding unique adventures rather than everybody flooding into the national parks at the same time of day.”

Marlin and Varela cite a 2019 study by two economists that predicted “astro-tourism” would generate some $5.8 billion over the next 10 years from nonlocal tourists on the Colorado Plateau, which encompasses parts of the Four Corners states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

“That’s enough,” Marlin said, “to make any state agency go, ‘Let’s cater to that crowd.’”

This “astro-tourism,” Marlin said, isn’t the same as the kind practiced decades ago. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Marlin said, the term was coined to refer to the super-rich traveling to remote places to see astronomical wonders. Carly Simon immortalized the trend in her 1972 hit “You’re So Vain,” when she sang, “you flew your Learjet to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun.”

“Those people who can afford to do that have now gone to the next orbit,” Marlin said — referring to billionaires Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, who have paid big money to go “to the ionosphere for 4 minutes, and then fall back to Earth.”

An open space during a pandemic

Varela has heard anecdotes from tourists who have visited Utah’s dark-sky locations during the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when most other tourist attractions — ones that rely on crowds — were shut down.

“There’s the whole COVID challenge, to find a new hobby,” Varela said. “There are lots of stories about people [saying] this is one of their COVID rituals, that enabled them to get outdoors without feeling at risk.”

Mendoza, who teaches atmospheric sciences at the U., noted that in the early days of the pandemic, pollution levels dropped for a time, because people couldn’t travel in fuel-burning vehicles. Meanwhile, he said, “the isolation led a lot of people to look outside and look at the skies.”

Applying to be a dark-sky location is a rigorous process. Goldsmith said that Helper, among other requirements, has ordinances to factor the dangers of light pollution into planning and zoning regulations.

“If somebody goes to build a subdivision or a house,” Goldsmith said, “we are looking at how that affects our dark skies.”

Visitors to Helper have several viewing locations to choose from, though Goldsmith said a popular spot is the parking lot of the town cemetery. “It’s very user-friendly,” she said.

The library in Helper, Goldsmith noted, recently received grant money to buy some telescopes — which patrons can check out and use.

Other organizations are joining the dark-sky movement. In late July, the Girl Scouts of Utah teamed with Utah State Parks for a star party on Antelope Island, highlighted by the launch of a special “dark sky” patch the Girl Scouts can earn.

The beauty of stargazing in a dark-sky area, Smith said, is “you don’t necessarily need equipment to go see. Just spend some time looking up, studying the sky, reconnecting with space and the universe.”

Mendoza’s U. class has gone to Helper to study the light pollution there. The class flies drones, developed with help from mechanical engineering students, to fly above the streetlights to measure how much light radiates upward.

Goldsmith said she encountered a student in Mendoza’s class who was “talking about getting out of their car and looking up and seeing all the stars and bursting into tears, because that’s just not part of what they get where they grew up.”

“This is something that connects us to something that’s larger than us,” Mendoza said. “It gives us our place in the universe.”

Going to a dark-sky location, Varela said, is a way to unplug from the world. It’s a chance to disconnect from social media and consider that “everybody doesn’t need to know where we are all the time to be a great experience,” she said.

“It’s kind of amazing, the way it enables you to engage with the world,” Varela said. “It’s meditative. It’s really healing.”